20 Xmas Gift Ideas For Crate Diggers: 90's Electronica (Part 5 of 5)
Aphex Twin “Selected Ambient Works 85-92” 2013 | Apollo (Originally released in 1992)
Massive Attack “Mezzanine” 2013 | Virgin (Originally released in 1998)
In retrospect 90s turned out to be a rather lacklustre epoch for independent as well as popular music. Even with the massive proliferation of dance subcultures, relatively ‘new’ drugs and social implications of thereabove, ultimately the impact was dulled when the global marketplace and internet collided to perfect the hyper efficient models for almost instant commodification and consumption around the same time. As a direct consequence every single facet of the creative processes in any type of arts had to comply to the new rules and move in increasingly ridiculous mini-cycles of fads and trends trying to either (unsuccessfully) escape the cold hands of mass-industry that has an in-built capacity to vacate the soul from almost anything it touches or, worse, to feed into the overheated train-wreck of the marketing machine.
These patterns flourished into an even more culturally atrocious beginning of the new century and ultimately settled into the loop of randomly rotating trends. When looking back at what has been collectively defined as the musical heritage of the 90s we primarily have awful pop (really there is nothing of note here apart from the lonely examples of individual geniuses such as Bjork or occasional sensory assaults from Scott Walker), horrendous guitar music (god-awful pomposity of post-rock and spectacular dead-ends of shoegazer and grunge), sad and anemic experimental underground (mainly operated by the personalities that made their best impact in the 80s) and electronic dance music. The latter is the only genre that for a while was an example of healthy, messy and living organism. That didn’t (couldn’t) last very long and ended with a failure of the drum’n’bass community to create anything of substance apart from two great, but over-produced albums and very limited amount of brilliant 12”s.
The expected breakthrough of the popular mass-marketable “electronica” didn’t materialize either (does anyone can still listen to Basement Jaxx or Chemical Brothers without cold sweats). On the infrastructure side towards the second part of the decade there already was a huge worldwide industry of hellish super nightclubs and odd roster of jet-setting djs. All uniformly tasteless (in some instances consciously), playing the same records and curiously unattractive. What was the draw is still not very clear. Lacking any sort of grand and sweeping narrative magazines digressed into the misadvised resurrection of easy listening and desperate attempts at turning a few talented Bristol collectives into the new sort of introverted rock bands, which unexpectedly resulted in the most unlikely candidature of Radiohead (instead of Portishead).
Despite the common consensus 90s weren’t as much fun as it came to be inscribed in the pop history and the actual soundtrack of it is a living proof. Which leaves us with this few truly groundbreaking and largely unexpected records that proudly stand alone and out with its stubborn originality and achievement having little relation to the pool of their immediate contemporary surrounding.
The first one is a late 90s masterstroke “Mezzanine” by Massive Attack at their effortlessly moodiest, which for unknown reason was one of the few of project’s records to be unavailable on vinyl since the original release in 1998. There was a time when it seemed like the incessant branding, re-branding and re-appropriation of album’s track in commercials, action flicks and brainless compilations will effectively ruin this pop marvel forever. A kind of thing that happened to another crossover acts from the popular dance cohort. Brightest example of which is Moby and his nauseating “Play”. The reason why it happen to Moby is a testament to how annoyingly old-fashioned, sugary and cutesy “Play” really was at the very time of its release. It was actually designed to be played by the pools of the all-inclusive resorts and the waiting rooms of massage salons. Nothing wrong with that, but if anyone remembers it was marketed as the newest thought in marvellous electronic pop. The very same thing happened to a lot of other exponents of deliberately polite music, such as Royksopp and their “Melody AM”, anything by Air etc.
That’ s all not to say that “Mezzanine” was somehow distinctly futuristic or intentionally abrasive. It wasn’t. What it was is a perfectly gloomy pop record that resulted from surprisingly coherent patchwork of isolated and claustrophobic creative process and growing hostility in the disintegrating relationships between the members of the project. There are no tangential big themes, ideas and causes here (something that cursed all of Massive Attack’s subsequent work with unbearable pomposity). No concepts or deep meditations on the state of society. The only thing that may unite or represent the thematic thread behind these modern soul nocturnes is a plain uncomfort of being human.
“Mezzanine” clicked with critics because of its very careful balancing act between dosed portions of existential decadence theatrics and sparingly applied moments of sheer pop-genius smothered with smart and super dense production. Album also enjoyed a very warm and long-lasting love from wide audience. Mainly due to the fact the record required no specific effort or knowledge on behalf of the listener. You didn’t need to recognize the samples or dig the Cocteau Twins, you could move to it without been acquainted with Jamaican soundsystem’s rhythms or be acquainted with urban dance styles, you didn’t have to like or know the exponents of moody strains of post-punk. From the universal appeal and beauty of “Teardrop” to the irresistible groove of Horace Andy featuring singles or jangly, distorted guitar and feedback delicately piercing the album it was a deceptively alluring music entertainment coming from the heroes of the fascinating subculture.
Yes there are moments that didn’t age quite well and some tunes are awfully overexposed by now, but when listening to the whole thing in one go it doesn’t distract from the fact that it’s a perfectly constructed work.
Not withholding it’s towering achievements “Mezzanine” did nothing for the music to come in its wake and seemed to completely paralyze the creative wells of the project that birthed it. If anything the album was the last nail in the sound previously named as “trip hop” and it took many years until anyone loosely affiliated with these particular wave of Bristol music community would manage to rid themselves from its ghost.
Earlier the same decade when dance music potential still seemed limitless there was another record that pretty much captured the zeitgeist, but in contrast to “Mezzanine” managed to simultaneously preserve its status as unachievable classic as well as inspire and define how most of the dance and electronic music will sound in the next 2+ decades. If techno could ever be compared to paintings “Selected Ambient Works 85-92” would be the most effortless example.
Having apparently inspired a great deal of the album’s material Detroit techno school of modal jazz chords obsessives ended up not even coming close in creating similarly definitive and future-proofed long format work. Speaking of Detroit techno classics… When listening to the record today it is quite surprising to rediscover how melodic and unashamedly sensual electronic music could afford to sound like without the fear of being accused in unrestraint, clutter, simplicity or downright silliness. Although the low fidelity production on most of the album’s tracks is unexpectedly au-courant in the seasons 2012-2013.
Those familiar with the material of this collection know that ambient is a somewhat misleading moniker more befitting the 2nd instalment in the series. Even in it’s quietest moments “Selected Ambient Works 85-92” still has the recognizable pulse and propulsion of dance music plus the echo of acid house in it’s playful swirling synth-patterns and boogying basslines, but the producer’s signature floating pads and generous layers of reverb on percussive elements submerge everything under a patina of serene water, which if not particularly qualifying for ‘wallpaper music’ idea of ambient do carry out space evocation functions intact. The sheer ritualism of album’s material is unmistakably early 90s, but taking into consideration our insatiable appetite for revisions it is also reminiscent of much of the recent practices of mesmerism in underground dance and experimental music.
Thanks to its unmistakable identity, mood and textures “Ambient Works”, despite the formal simplicity, managed to stay pretty much untouched by subsequent attempts at replication. Most amazingly the only records that could be justly compared to anything on display here are the ones that resurfaced only in the last couple of years. The brightest examples would be this year’s anthology-EP of early experiments by Move D (David Moufang) collected on “The KM20 Tapes 1992-1996” and Jorge Velez’ “MMT Tapes Series: Home Recordings” on Rush Hour. The former is as much the product of deep-running Pete Namlook influence who released some of David’s music on his iconic Fax +49-69/450464 label. As is visible from the titles both of the releases are actually archives that actually date back to the 90s. But even without going back to the past we can witness a very evident trace of Richard D. James particular strain of mysticism in much of the Dominick Fernow’s work and even frost-bitten dramas of Sandwell District’s most lyrical moments.
Going through innumerous bootleg incarnations over the past years the official Apollo’s reissue of the record is the only version you really need to have due to its absolutely impeccable remastering job.
Below is a stunning hallucinatory longform videoart piece "Westworld" created by Mark McClean and Colin Scott soundtracked exclusively by the selections from Aphex Twin's "SAW II" album.