By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
Brian Eno put it best when, after working with U2 and DJ/producer Howie B on a project, he concluded that rock musicians think of albums as novels, while electronic musicians think of them as magazines. It's a great analogy for understanding both the basic difference between rock dudes and electronicists, and for understanding what you should expect from electronica. While hubristic rock and rollers spend years attempting to summarize sociocultural gestalt on albums that are supposed to stand as definitive statements, popular electronic musicians seem more comfortable delivering two or three records per year. The idea is to try to capture the now sound, as in that month's. Problems arise when these records are like bad magazines -- the kind of fluff you'd wouldn't pick up in a dentist's office, much less subscribe to.
On CD1 Berlin's Stefan Betke, a.k.a. Pole, has created a now sound that actually holds up over an entire record. And as with many of electronica's beacons (Aphex Twin, Microstoria, Scanner), he's built this sound using some unlikely source materials. In this case his main "instrument" is a defective 4-Pole Waldorf Filter. During his day job as the vinyl cutter at Berlin's Dubplates and Mastering studio, he uses a functional filter to make sure pops don't appear on the hundreds of house and techno records he helps manufacture. Conversely the faulty Waldorf Filter makes the degraded vinyl sounds it's supposed to prevent: hums, scratches, crackles, and ticks. (How's that for pragmatic irony -- selecting your biggest job hassle as your fundamental sound source?)
If Betke just let these sounds bounce around in odd patterns, CD1 might be nothing more than a retro version of Oval, in which Microstoria's Marcus Popp paints, scratches, and otherwise distresses compact discs, reprogramming the results into music that is chillingly absent. Instead Betke puts this stereotypically quiescent vocabulary toward more danceable ends, creating a minimalist form of dub. He is Oval with better beats; Jamaican dub forefather Augustus Pablo with more hi-tech electronics; Metalheadz-style jungle without pronounced percussion and an overabundance of absurdly ominous delayed synth-washes. He establishes this language early on, and for the most part, sticks to it. The album works best when it doesn't stray too far from the abstract. On "Lachen," for example, he disregards obvious dub moments like articulated percussion sounds, consistent pitch, and clear bass lines in favor of a varying series of pops and clicks that suggest the song's dub structure is coalescing almost by accident; the beats are just audible enough that the listener is persuaded to fill in the gaps. Less interesting are songs such as "Kirschenessen" and "Modul," on which the bass track is in the foreground. The crackles play the part of neat sound effects, and Pole becomes something not quite unique.
Judging from the contents of 2, a simultaneously released mini-LP, this groove-oriented approach may be the direction Betke is taking. In 2's 30-plus minutes, Betke de-emphasizes his beloved filter and pumps up the bass, creating what sounds like serviceable, beatless dub pressed onto bad vinyl. This is either an intermediary phase leading to better things or the sign of a one-trick pony whose days in the fast-paced world of magazine publishing -- where titles rarely make it to profitability -- are numbered.
Let Us Replay
For more than ten years the DJ collective known as Coldcut has ably illustrated the style and stance of the mad British b-boy, who is infected with hip-hop fever and who would sooner die than be cured. Coldcut's audacious experimentalism is matched in intensity only by their fidelity to hip-hop's primary element: the beat. Many of the European dance-music acts that, like Coldcut, don't employ rappers, make the mistake of attempting to reinvent the genre, engineering a number of instrumental subgenres (jungle, big beat, speed garage) that don't partake of hip-hop's unique, deftly disruptive character. Coldcut fills the vocal gap by exaggerating hip-hop's instrumental events (the heart-stopping rests, jarring impacts, and harsh scratches of a turntable-manipulated rhythm) until they form an abstract drama that transcends verbiage. At once stripped down and built up, the best Coldcut tracks experiment with a proven form by magnifying its essence.
Ninja Tune, the label Coldcut started in the early Nineties, expanded on the group's philosophy. As sampling became the favored composition technique of DJs, Ninja Tune understood instrumental hip-hop as the genre that consumes all other genres. Coldcut's mind-blowing live act, seen on these shores as part of various Ninja Tune package tours, leaves little doubt of their willingness to throw absolutely anything into the mix, so long as it lands hard and on time.
On full-length CDs this freewheeling impudence has yielded consistently inconsistent results. Every piece of the Coldcut universe seems designed to reflect a distorted, imperfect, and interrupted whole. That's why Coldcut's new release, a collection of live and guest-remixed tracks from 1997's Let Us Play, is as good an introduction to the group as any other. Because of Coldcut's adherence to classic hip-hop tenets, remix discs on Ninja Tune are unlike those on any other label. A Ninja Tune reshuffling is never more novel or rare than the original. Let Us Replay (along with the label's wonderfully didactic East Flatbush Project, a recent compilation of ten mixes of the same song originally released on Miami's own Chocolate Industries label) proves that played this way, the remix game isn't a sideshow, but part of normal operations in a genre constantly reimagined as it matures.