Separate Mind: Hear the machines let out a collective sigh

It no longer spawns myths or is home to the institutions that originally earned its status, but Detroit still has so much to be proud of. More than any other city, its influence on electronic music continues to loom large. Impervious to trends and fads and often incorporated into new variants and sounds, the fact that 2013 marks the 30th year since Cybotron released Clear – a milestone that this writer intends to cover in greater deal soon – shows that above others, Detroit electronic music has longevity.

Those with an opposing viewpoint would argue that Detroit has long since run out of steam and is merely surviving on its former glories; something that they would claim is borne out by the number of reissues currently surfacing. If one subscribes to this opinion, it would appear that there is ample ammunition to support it with both Juan Atkins and Mike Huckaby re-releases currently doing the rounds. The counter argument however is that neither Archiv 07 nor Versatility are crammed with overplayed anthems and that in both instances, they are reissued with the artist’s consent and involvement.

It is true that Atkins’ catalogue has been the subject of many reissues and remixes; some have been good, others unimpressive and ill thought out. Thankfully, Archiv 07 merely contains original material and Tresor should be lauded for not commissioning big-name, hype-bloated remixers. “I Love You”, under Atkins’ own name, appeared on the now defunct New Religion label back in 2004. It may have slipped through the cracks first time round, and even if it didn’t it is still worth hearing again. Starting with a typical Atkins bassline, the kind that warbles and flits between frequencies like a hyperactive firefly, it’s impossible to distinguish where it stops and the sparks generated by the tonal blips and bleeps start.

The addition of a resonating male vocal and then a seductive female response makes “Love” even more alluring, the interplay between man, woman and Atkins’ wizardry being truly magical. On the flip side, there’s a remodelled version of Cybotron’s classic “Techno City”, released by Atkins in 1995 under the more obscure Audiotech guise, but originally issued in 1984. So how does he interpret one of his own benchmark productions? “Techno City 95” sees him unleash a wiry, jerking rhythm and more powerful, pronounced 808s than on the original. Maybe it’s the passage of time, but a decade after “Techno City” was first released, this new version has more clarity and warmth, a new vocal asking ‘what’s the master plan’ ahead of the original track’s ‘Oooh Techno City’ refrain. Like “I Love You”, there is something intangibly sensual about “Techno City 95”, as if Atkins has gleaned an insight into how to automatically release a mass rush of endorphins in anyone who comes into contact with his music.

Countering the other argument about Detroit, namely that it is trading off past glories, is Huckaby’s Versatility. Originally released back in the late 90s on separate labels, this re-release on Synth makes the crate digger’s job much easier. It also offers a new ‘Culture Box’ edit of “Sandcastle”, where Huckaby keeps it linear and functional, adding percussive ticks and sledgehammer claps to the dubby, driving rhythm. It highlights his appeal across house and techno tastes, the dense drums applicable to warm up or main room duties. Meanwhile, “Flashbacks from the M1(Ferox Treatment)” is delivered in the same form as the original release. The pace is faster, the groove more tracky and insistent, with a looped synth riff shooting in and out of the arrangement. When a second, deeper sequence breezes in, it sounds like the most natural thing in the world, leading “Flashbacks” into a space that sounds inspired by the sounds of Berlin techno, Detroit’s beachhead into Europe and a city Huckaby has been long associated with. The relationship between both cities is well-documented. In his wisdom, Dimitri Hegemann from Tresor convinced Jeff Mills to perform in Berlin at the start of the 90s. This helped to kick-start the ‘techno alliance’, which the label’s 1993 compilation alludes to, and which Huckaby is also part of.

On his latest release, Phenomenal on Sect, Fanon Flowers expands on the Detroit-Berlin relationship. The Kalamazoo, Michigan born Flowers has been quietly making powerful, hard-hitting techno since the mid-90s, steadily releasing music rather than becoming a decided to limit his output. For those already aware of his work on Mechanism Industries, the title track does not mark a major departure, with a pumping rhythm and a dense, tingling groove gradually making way for a menacing chord sequence that opens up like a yawning chasm. It’s deep but pounding, textured and dubby, but also has enough subtleties – like the percussive ticks – and depth of sound – characterised by the robust drums –  to make most repetitive techno appear two-dimensional.

Like the approach Huckaby uses on Versatility, “Phenomenal” is the kind track that could be played by a warm up DJ or at peak time – something that cannot be applied to all of Flowers’s work. The Detroit-Berlin connection is also evident here, with Substance aka DJ Pete weighing in with a remix. This version is all about the bassline, which is slightly off centre but nonetheless the arrangement’s main focus. Substance merely adds some dubbed out effects, a hazy riff here, a spacey bleep there, and, combined with some reverberated claps, has transposed the dark, linear “Phenomenal” to the forever open clubs of Berlin.

The creativity originates from the other side of the Atlantic on Frocks, the forthcoming twentieth release on Patrice Scott’s label. The work of Greek producer in Germany XDB, it’s one of Sistrum’s quirkiest releases. Unlike XDB’s previous release on the label, the sombre, smoky dub of “Espac” from 2008, “Frocks” starts off with angelic chords and unintelligible vocal mutterings before it veers into hypnotic, droning bleeps. XDB’s sonic rambling doesn’t end there and as it reaches its final segment, the breezy chords are reintroduced, this time tethered to rigid claps. But before he gets the chance to explore this more dance floor route, the arrangement ends rather abruptly.

There’s a similar approach on “Modul”, even though the sound is radically different. The stripped back rhythm is laced with insidious acid licks, but it veers unexpectedly into a rolling, jazzy segue that sounds more like Guidance than Sistrum. The release also finds Scott in more reflective form than usual. While his productions are deep, they also have a drive, a dynamism that sets them apart from most other house releases. On this occasion, he seems more interested in keeping the tempo low and the sound more organic, as an electronic bass gets cosy with some seductive Rhodes playing. Like XDB, Scott’s contribution to Frocks shows a different side to his productions.

From Germany to the UK, Toby Leeming aka The Third Man provides a taster of what we can expect from his album Beyond The Heliosphere, due out in May, with the soon to arrive Double Dawn EP on the EPM label. Leeming’s production style is somewhat reminiscent of classic Dan Curtin in that he prioritises melodies but also has a rough and ready touch. The key difference between Leeming and Curtin is that the US producer’s greatest work had an unpredictable feeling, with releases like Time Undefined suddenly veering off on unexpected rhythmic paths, whereas on “Double Dawn, there’s a linear approach throughout. That said, when the grandiose melody line swaggers in over the noisy, acid-blotted bassline, such considerations become irrelevant. In fact, the main thing that will occur to most listeners (and dancers) will probably be ‘are those stabs inspired or borrowed from “Move Your Body”? Irrespective of their provenance, they are memorable, but not quite as remarkable as what John Heckle does to them in his remix.

This writer is committing a form of heresy and will probably incur the wrath of the internet trolls when I admit that the Liverpool producer’s remixes are of a higher quality than his original material. This became apparent to me after listening to his live set at Boiler Room, where Heckle assumed the role of showman and on the fly remixer. There’s a similar aesthetic at play in his “Double Dawn” remix; the drums are heavy and upfront, the snares roll and crash ominously and after about a minute Heckle drops an acid bassline that sounds like the by-product of an excruciating form of Roland torture. Heckle hangs onto the original track’s house stabs, but uses an old school synth, like the one used so effectively in Legowelt’s DX Days, to keep it in his own universe. Claro Intelecto also provides a remix that is less intense than Heckle’s version, but which still packs a punch thanks to its spiky, metallic rhythm. 

Fred P also brings acid influences to bear on Black Jazz Consortium’s Codes & Metaphors Part 3, the third taster for his album under this guise on his Soul People label. Like Huckaby, XDB and Patrice Scott, Peterkin is adept at uniting soulful elements with dance floor force, and he doesn’t disappoint on this EP. “Amazing” sees him roll out the 303, its acrid sounds twisting and turning seductively over dark claps, while in the background, Peterkin’s trademark shimmering chords struggle to be heard. Musical elements are not held back on “Even Greater”; while the drums and percussion crackle and hiss away, the chiming, spacey keys and a mysterious vocal states ‘even… it’s who you are’. It’s another example of Peterkin’s unparalleled ability to strike such a balance.

However, “Even” sounds inconsequential compared to “Love is Blooming”. Arguably one of his strongest – and certainly most inspirational – compositions to date, an otherworldly, female vocal states that ‘everywhere I turn, love is blooming’, while haunting, evocative chords are fused with marching, steely drums and spacey claps to create a mood so uplifting and a sound so timeless that it transcends time and location. There’s also a version from Aybee, where the vocal is pitched up and where the second half of the track progresses into a wash of ambient synths, but it is hard to compete with the original. I was tempted to say that Fred P’s spirit belongs in Detroit, but that would do him a disservice – someone who makes music like this belongs everywhere.

From deep techno to electro, Scape One’s comeback continues apace; fresh from his sensuous album as Tau Sagittarii, the UK producer has a new EP out on AC Records called Migration. The main focus this time is Detroit-style electro, with “Life System” setting the tone. Shimmering, uplifting synths unfold over clipped drums and a warm bass purrs away in the background. If you listen closely enough, you can hear Baggaley’s machines let out a collective sigh. The title track favours a slightly darker tone, with a bleepy low end and heavier claps laying the basis for warbling synths that provide a mellow counterweight to the backing track. Both “A Different Room” and “It’s in the Room” see Baggaley forsake melodies and hooks; the former unravels to the sound of a low slung, dense rhythm, while the latter is driven by a rumbling, rolling bass. It’s not all serious furrowed-brow music however, and “Vivid Construct” sees Baggaley deliver a pulsing bass-led groove that owes more to Italo Disco than the sometimes frosty electro robotics.

The Mighty Robot label was at the forefront of releasing underground electro and techno during the mid to late 00s. Unlike most imprints, it brought a sense of humour to each release – anyone for such delights as Welfare State of Mind or How to Make Bombs and Influence People? Following a hiatus of a few years, it is now back with DRMCNT’s upcoming Jin & Tronix and the same in-house gags have not changed much – apart from the title, the artist name appears to be missing two ‘U’s. However, the musical direction is markedly different; there is a reference to Legowelt’s Gladio release on the pulsing acid line and dreamy synths of “Skinner”, but in the main, Jin & Tronix is a serious affair. It starts with “Default Strip”, a drum track that filters and swings its way to an acid-led climax, helped on by rolling snares and monotonous robotic vocals.

Meanwhile, “Para Signal” is shaped by similar sounds and influences, but with more of a 90s focus; its pitched down vocals and gradual build, from eerie synths into full on gurgling acid mode, is reminiscent of classic Plastikman. But there is also an abstract aesthetic at play on this release: “Sarkism” sees a stepping rhythm and rolling drums provide the backdrop for DRMCNT’s acid tones and “Timebomb” is not much more than a series of tonal bleeps wrapped and repetitive vocal samples (intoning what sounds like the phrase ‘single mum’).

Samuel Kerridge also keeps it abstract on Waiting for Love, his new release on Downwards. There has been a lot of verbiage spouted of late about the supposed industrial revolution in the UK techno scene, but the real story has been modern electronic music’s move towards the abstract. This writer covered the phenomenon almost exactly two years ago and artists like Kerridge are ensuring that it is not just a flash in the pan. Following his debut on Horizontal Ground, he delivers an even more impressive follow up for Karl O’Connor’s label.

Musically, Kerridge’s ideas are more developed and fleshed out, with a fine balance on all four tracks between atmospheric sounds and powerful, low-end elements. On “1”, this takes the shape of a tonal bass and noisy interference gradually insinuating itself into the arrangement, but never taking away from the low tempo groove. “2” sees Kerridge opt for a more malevolent approach with belching bass tones, eerie percussive ticks and a wiry, understated rhythm providing the backdrop for a tapestry of grey scale textures. “3” features dead-paced, funereal beats that are gradually overshadowed by a cloak of creepy atmospherics and low paced heart beats, while “4” sees Kerridge unleash waves of percussive whirrs and clicks and chilling strings as a dark bass rumbles in the background. It’s not from Detroit, but it’s more about where Kerridge is at – creating seductive, darkly soulful music when so many around him are pulling lame Gothic shapes.

Richard Brophy