Let’s face it – a lot of the stories behind practitioners of electronic music can be fairly dry. Secure home environments, steady education, and family support with which to indulge creative whims before hitting upon success of one kind or another. Of course it’s not always like that, as Joe Muggs pointed out when he wrote a wildly twisting story of ‘90s techno, crime and punishment on the South coast of England for Thump, shining a light on the lesser-known talents of Ibrahim Alfa.
There’s no need to dive into a tale that has already been told, but the unlikely story of Alfa’s life in and around techno forms a backdrop to this archival release on Workshop. Hidden By The Leaves was originally intended for release on David Moufang’s Source Records back in the ‘90s but fell foul of bankruptcy and was consigned to the shelves until Moufang rediscovered the masters in his studio and passed them to Lowtec for issuing on Workshop, and it’s a good thing too.
Admittedly, we’re not short of rediscovered ‘90s techno these days, but the truth of the matter is that the best of the era is timeless, and stands up to current scrutiny after some twenty years. Perhaps there is something telling in the fact that the tracks on Hidden By The Leaves are all relatively short (by club track standards anyway), and once you start delving into the music itself the picture becomes clearer. This was not music crafted as DJ-ready material, but rather an exploration of techno as a means of creative expression with all the possibilities the technology could provide.
Take “Dreamland”, one of the standout tracks on the album. The primary groove is a tough, rigid electro whip crack around which a pleasing mulch of lopsided synth harmonies swirl, but then midway through Alfa ditches said beat for a completely different funked up house swing. It’s an impulsive twist that certainly doesn’t negate the track’s danceability, but within a track barely over four minutes makes something of a statement about the desire for fun and invention at the hands of the artist. That’s but one basic example of the imagination spilling out of this record.
“Black Mask” is a head spinner of a track, taking the more laid back route into electro as favoured by labels such as Clear and acts like Metamatics back in the day, the groove teasing out in front only to be snatched in and out amongst ripples and wobbles of noise and a cheeky organ bassline. It’s simultaneously serious and silly, yet somehow rounds off feeling just plain soulful.
If ever there was a clear indication that this record was intended for Source originally though, it is surely “Drifting”. From its peppy 2-step beat to the bluesy drift of the pads, it calls to mind some of the early Move D releases quite sharply, albeit shot through with a British ruffness that just couldn’t come from Heidelberg. Again here the pace and flow of the track seems to operate on its own agenda – no concern is given to the energy and attention of the imaginary audience, it simply rolls out just how its creator feels it should.
“We Can Never Go Home” meanwhile flips the script with a particularly tough take on downtempo a la Mo Wax, sounding ripe for the Excursions sublabel. “Clip My Wings” and “Past Is Past” instead nod a little more to Alfa’s Brighton locale with a hectic pace and wonky compositional bent that would sit more naturally alongside the Mosquito posse.
Let’s be thankful that this record was able to come to light, for it contains everything that is great about this era of electronic music. Rough around the edges, highly personal and trying to please no-one, Hidden By The Leaves feels like a direct line into Alfa’s musical psyche. What makes this record so special is the combination of emotions that it expresses and elicits in the listener. In many ways it’s a strange affair, but then it’s also rich in melody, and the beats are thoroughly tangible. It’s the kind of record that leaves you a little unsure as to how it made you feel, but it doesn’t leave any doubt as to whether you enjoyed it.
A1. Find You Way Home
A2. Black Mask
A4. Full Black, No Stars
B1. We Can Never Go Home…
B2. Clip My Wings
B4. Past Is Past