18/07/20 This week I have been mostly listening to…

Meat Beat Manifesto – Impossible Star (2019). Every now and then you come across a band or artist which makes you wonder why on earth you weren’t listening to them years ago. To be fair, I have been vaguely aware of the descriptively named Meat Beat Manifesto for a long time, but never gave them a proper airing. Occupying a similar sort of relationship to Industrial/Breakbeat music as Underworld do to Techno, MBM have been going since the late 80s, releasing a slew of varied albums and influencing legions of other artists and scenes (The Prodge and Chemical Brothers, to name two). Early albums featured vocalist Johnny Stephens, and there have been many collaborators along the way (including on this album, Ben Stokes) but The Meat Beat Manifesto is essentially the brainchild of Jack Dangers: beatmonger, sample merchant and studio wizard extraordinaire. 

Listening to The Impossible Star, it doesn’t sound like the work of someone who released their first album in 1989. It sounds…fresh. Mr Dangers has clearly kept pace with modern production techniques, and of course his sound has evolved completely from the punky sample-driven breakbeat of the first MBM releases.

Impossible Star is a tight, dense affair – I can imagine lots of these tracks working well in a dark basement night club (remember those?). There are squelching acid lines aplenty, jittery electro beats, and of course a ton of lurching rumbling bass. Unique Boutique takes a rattling beat from the point where Techno and Dubstep converge (reminding me of some of something Surgeon or Cristian Vogel would rustle up). On first listen I thought the robotic voice was telling me ‘You need routine’ but it appears from the title there is no deeper meaning than a rhyming phrase. The stealthy vibe on the acid-inflected tracks are up on a par with AFX’s Analord series – for analogue squelch, boingy rhythm and constant mutation – check out Lurker especially. 

Although the atmosphere of this album is claustrophobic, it’s not an uncomfortable listen. The head-rattling beats are balanced in equal parts by tracks that lope along in a dreamy sort of way. TMI (Too much information) features Dangers himself on vocals, warning us of the dangers of just that – or rather too much misinformation, which is all we are left with today it seems. As socio-political commentary, the resignation in his voice couldn’t be further from the rageful screams of ‘Genocide in the first degree’ from GOD OD but then that was three decades ago.

Floating Points – Crush (2019). Having seen his name pop up frequently, usually attached to remixes, in my mind I lumped Floating Points in with artists like Four Tet, Moderat, Apparat, Joy Orbison and James Holden. Producers who twist the sounds of House, Techno and UK Garage into new forms but retain enough dancefloor chug and melodic prettiness to make their music accessible to a home listening audience, as well as ravers at packed clubs and festival tents.

They are also artists to whom I’ve occasionally seen the snide term ‘Dadtronica’ or ‘Dad House’ made in reference to. Some years ago this would have been anathema, but I like to think I’ve reached a point in my life where I’m comfortable enough in my tastes to listen to something despite it attracting such a label (whether unfairly or not).

Sam Shepherd (as he is known) clearly brings his love of jazz music to bear on this album. Not in the voice of the instruments so much as the fidgety, restless nature of the rhythms – each track feels free to take its own meandering direction. He’s very successfully produced something that sounds both electronic yet organic. Jon Hopkins is another widely lauded electronic artist whose music I only listened to for the first time recently, and though Immunity is a nice album, I was kind of underwhelmed. Perhaps it’s not fair to compare as Immunity is several years old now but this is just…more interesting. 

On Anasickmodular, ghostly high-pitched drones skate above the bare bones of a garage beat; Les Alpx is the lead banger of the album: a pacey bass drum-beat is propelled by overdriven synths, bloops and beeps before being rejoined by the same drones from Anasickmodular. Elsewhere across Crush, there are musical interludes that seamlessly marry the electronic and classical. Requiem for CS70 and Strings, is a short meditation on a simple chord pattern on the Yamaha CS70 synthesiser; Birth is gentle melodic piece which unfolds over three minutes and I guess was played on the same machine. Much of this reminds me of the musical interludes on Kettel’s Whisper me Wishes – another artist who successfully melds his classical influences intro electronic music without tipping the scales too far into tweeness or ostentation.

Luke Vibert – Bizarster (2015), Modern Rave (2020). A well-known tale from early Aphex Twin folklore tells of how RDJ ‘composed’ some of his early tracks (from SAW 2, I think) while lucid dreaming – taking melodies that came to him unconsciously and then transporting them back to the world of the wakeful. Whether this has any basis in truth or is pure self-mythologising is by the by. But dipping into a couple of recent releases from Aphex’s countyman and friend, Luke Vibert (aka Wagon Christ, aka Plug, aka Amen Andrews, aka Kerrier District – you know the guy) I get the feeling that he could turn out albums like this in his sleep.

Bizarster is from 2015, and Modern Rave is one of a trio of albums (three albums!) released this summer. On my initial impressions they are both cut from the same cloth from which Mr Vibert weaves much of his music: funky breakbeats that slide along the spectrum from Hip-hop, to Breaks to Jungle; retro rave synths and sounds; a playful sense of mischief and pastiche and bucketloads of samples. There’s no denying it: the man is a skilled producer and he knows how to combine these elements into tracks that sound as good, if not better, than anything from the last 30 years of dance music. In fact his homage of rave styles tends to sound shinier, warmer, more dynamic and more funky than much of the original material it pays tribute to. 

But it’s hard not to get away from the feeling that we’ve been over this ground many times before. Not that that’s even such a crime, heck I love a bit of rave/90s nostalgia as much as the next person. It just seems that a producer as talented, and who’s been around as long, as Luke Vibert could turn out something a little more…interesting? Unusual? Original?

I don’t know…this is by no means to do down Luke Vibert, whose discography is way more substantive and varied than 99% of artists I can think of. (And whose live DJ sets are always diverse, idiosyncratic and thoroughly enjoyable). I suppose he’s a victim of his own success in a way, by setting the bar so high he’s fated to be held to a higher standard than you’d expect from the average sample jockey. And I have to admit, he makes some damn funky tunes.

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