14/05/2020 This week I have been mostly listening to

Sabres of Paradise – Sabresonic II (1995). I think it’s fair to say the Sabersonic albums are generally considered classics of 1990s electronic music. It was on this understanding that I bought it on CD years ago, when I was filling in what I perceived to be crucial gaps in my collection of Warp, Ninja Tune and similar releases. But other than the beatless remix of Smokebelch II (the opening track on the album) enjoying a brief stint as favourite post rave 7am come-down anthem, the album never entered my regular rotation.

But with all the tributes and outpouring of admiration following the tragic early death of Andrew Weatherall, I thought it was fair to give it some more spins. And now I can totally see why this should be in the same leagues as albums from the same era by Orbital, Plaid, Autechre, FSOL, etc. At the time I was first listening to this (probably nearly 15 years ago, gulp) I was always searching for music that was more and more ‘otherworldly’. I was beguiled by the strange and sinister sounds of Aphex Twin, the alien landscapes of Future Sound of London and the unfathomable complexity of Venetian Snares. And to my less refined tastes at the time Sabres of Paradise sounded too…normal. 

But now, having much wider tastes and the advantage of a broader perspective on music I can get a much deeper appreciation for the tracks on Sabresonic II. The album is a curious mixture; Smokebelch II is unapologetically emotional and joyous, this is followed by tribal stomper Inter-Lergen-Ten-Ko II and then the moody and atmospheric Return of Carter. All the tracks seem to fall between genres, too expansive and banging to be labelled as downbeat or dub but not pumping enough to be straight up techno….the tribalistic acid stomper Still Fighting is the centrepiece of the album and the epitome of the style. 

This was a time (1995) when albums could effortlessly straddle genres and mix styles; a time of boundless experimentation and innovation – it seems like new genres were being invented constantly. And Andrew Weatherall, as key member of Sabres of Paradise was responsible for a good deal of this innovation and envelope pushing. RIP. 

Eat Static – Abduction (1993). I have barely listened to any psychedelic or goa trance in the last few years, but whenever I return to it I’m always reminded how much fun it is to listen to. More than any style of ‘dance’ music, it’s the one that most makes me hanker for the real thing – i.e. getting outdoors in a field in the sun with a load of people for a proper rave. Alas that isn’t going to be happening in my life any time soon so I’ll have to make do with a brisk stroll in the park and some high quality headphones. 

This early album by Eat Static is not actually proper banging psytrance; this is old school Goa trance, circa 1993. ‘Trance’ in those days referred to music that was trippy and repetitive but much more melodic and musical than the hard pumping (and endlessly derivative) stuff that became a global phenomenon in the later 90s and launched the careers of so-called ‘superstar DJs’. Goa Trance was an even more tripped out and trance-inducing variation on the style, and Eat Static, formed out of members of legendary underground psyche band, Ozric Tentacles, could arguably be considered some of the forefathers of the Psy/Goa genres.

During one of my earliest forays into Psychedelic music, I almost purchased the CD of Abduction on ebay. I remember looking longingly at the cover art (a classic comic book psy-fi illustration of a UFO over a stone circle) and everything it represented – festivals, psychedelic drugs, subcultures, the underground, the rave scene – and just longing to be a part of it. Since then I’ve had my fair share of some of those things but I will always be envious of that golden time in the early 1990s when so much of this music and cultural context it was enjoyed in (raves, etc) was exploding for the first time. I know people have been enjoying music and expanding their minds together in the outdoors for millenia, but as a devout fan of electronic music, the period from around 1988 – 1994 will also hold special fascination as a halcyon era. 

The music on Abduction would probably surprise anyone picking it up expecting to hear ‘psytrance’. The beats are less pumping and the tracks are much more detailed and richly musical than (what is now known as) classic psytrance. Eat Static are clearly talented musicians and you can hear the influences of their  psychedelic/prog rock background in the music. Fundamentally this is still music to dance to and the cheesy psychedelic tropes we know and love: ‘ethnic’ and Eastern vocals and sci-fi movie samples are all there in abundance. The wide-eyed innocence with which they’re employed all adds to this album’s retro charm and beauty. All good clean fun.

Casino versus Japan – Go Hawaii (2000). As always with electronic music ‘bedroom’ producers, the most difficult thing is differentiating yourself from the legions of other dudes (and by and large it is dudes) with a houseful of gear and a deal with a hip underground record label. If I was encouraging someone to listen to Casino versus Japan in one phrase, I might say: imagine what Boards of Canada would’ve sounded like if they grew up in Milwaukee. Even though it’s generally meant as a compliment, it must be frustrating for anyone crafting gentle downbeat melodic music to be always in the shadow of the mighty Boards.

Casino versus Japan treads the same territory: hazy, washed out synth sounds, distorted beats firmly in the downtempo, and wistful dreamy melodies. But CvJ (aka Erik Kowalski) doesn’t imbue his tracks with the undercurrent of darkness and the implications of sinister rituals you find lurking in Boards of Canada’s music. And this album especially, given it’s a celebration (concept album sounds too grandiose) of Hawaii has a very sunny disposition. 

There’s nothing particularly arch or trying-to-be-clever about this album, which is why it’s so good. Just damn pleasant music, that lulls you into a woozy, chilled out state. I’ve no idea if Erik Kowalski has ever actually been to Hawaii. And maybe that’s the only bittersweet note that creeps into this album; that it might have been made by someone who grew up in a cold, wet, city yearning to experience the sunny tropical beauty of an island paradise.

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