It’s time for a rewind. Back during the dark days of loop techno, Paula Temple stood out against the tide of one-note bores. Why? Because in 2002, she released The Speck of the Future on the Materials label. That may seem like a minor detail, but don’t forget that she was the only artist apart from owner Chris McCormack to release on the imprint and that the searing industrial fury of “Contact” was eventually licensed by Jeff Mills for his 2004 Exhibitionist mix.
It’s payback time for Perc as he shifts roles from label A&R to remixer – but can his work across three remixes match up to the Factory Floor remixes of Forward Strategy Group? It’s hard to answer, not least because the reworkings from Butler, Colk and Gurnsey of tracks from Labour Division were subtle and insidious, while Perc chooses a more upfront approach to repay the favour.
Probably the highest praise for artists of a certain disposition is that it’s impossible for their audiences to tell whether they are being serious or simply taking the piss. This kind of ambiguity is prevalent among all the great alternative artists from New Order/Joy Division, The Fall and Throbbing Gristle to Larry Levan, Regis and Shed.
Just when you thought that it was settling into a discernible path, Lucy’s label surprises again with the launch of the Stellate series. Available in metallic tins as well as in digital formats, it marks another fresh approach from the Berlin-based label. Whereas SA’s main modus operandi had focused on dub-influenced electronic music as well as the broken beat/abstract approach on its Monad series and album projects, Stellate heralds a new chapter in the label’s evolution. The compilation sees SA go ambient with a small a. If you’re looking for whale mating sounds set to sonic bleeps then this collection is likely to disappoint, but if you have a yearning for something more than the pounding austerity of contemporary techno, then Stellate is for you.
It’s been twenty years since the Black Dog released its first record, and in that space of time their fans have been through more line-up and style changes than a US R&B act. From breakbeat rave through poly-rhythmic ‘intelligent techno’ - this writer’s favourite incarnation, it must be said - through their film soundtrack, ambient and industrial stylings, tBD have covered a wide range of ground, enchanting, sometimes baffling, but always demanding our attention.
What is most striking is that apart from Luke Slater, they are the only act from the UK’s golden age of techno that still sound relevant, something they have achieved by not standing still for too long. The Liber series revealed their love of 80s industrial, but it also showcased Italo, moody electro and techno without breaking a sweat. Now tracks from the series get the remix treatment from some of contemporary electronic music’s most vital names. Sandwell District’s take on “Dissident Bleep” is everything one would expect from the revered techno act, a tunneling, hypnotic groove, while newcomer Sigha’s take on “High Rise Choir Reprise” opts for a diametrically opposed sound, the textures stripped away, replaced by a stuttering, plate-metal rhythm.
Shifted and Perc also impress; the former’s take on “Heavy Industry” sees a gushing filter wash over the Dog’s bleepy techno and the latter turns “Bass Mantra” into a pounding, sheet metal rhythmic assault. It’s not all functional, streamlined techno however, and, like the Black Dog themselves, a large part of this remix package’s charms comes from unexpected moments like Richard H Kirk’s shimmying, sax-infused take on “Greedy Gutter Guru” and the muttered vocals and murderous sub-bass of Blawan’s version of “Black Chamber Order”. Here’s to 20 more years.
In an era where technology and cheap air travel guarantee that electronic music is tarred with the same homogeneous brush as the rest of globalised popular culture, Ali Wells has decided to make a decidedly British techno album. By invoking two distinct strands of British culture, eccentricity and industry - the latter at both at a societal and musical level - Wells has firmly pinned his colours to a mast marked ‘music-making English oddball’. The challenge is whether he can represent these values without in the process looking like a token dissenter from the borderless, incessant march of techno culture?
Certainly, album opener “Choice” is a promising start. Dreamy ambience and found sounds provide the backdrop for a camp, wistful interview subject talking about his mundane childhood and how it in turn affected his artistic output. Is it Perc himself or a disturbed, fictional representation of his character? We will never know. Despite this, there is something almost ghoulish about this track, allowing the listener to eavesdrop on someone who sounds vulnerable, but that’s also a great part of its charm.
“My Head is Slowly Exploding” also elicits a similar reaction; over the kind of hypnotic beat you’d expect from industrialists Throbbing Gristle, Perc throws down bars of slamming metal but softens the blow with layers of wispy ambience. It’s like watching one of the greatest British horror films, “The Wicker Man”, in reverse, and discovering first that the islanders burn intruders before experiencing the touchy-feely side to their paganism. With this part of the concept thoroughly covered – although “You Saw Me” also reveals a menacing undercurrent to his eccentricity with a slow chugging train groove - Perc then focuses on the industrial side of his album.
Borrowing as much from the former greatness of the north’s steel foundries as the unrelenting linear brutality of Surgeon and Regis, “Gonkle” and “London, We Have You Surrounded” deploy evil sirens and searing metallic riffs over malevolent broken beats and white-knuckle rhythmic fury. If there was ever a soundtrack to document the possibility of the British population north of the Watford Gap turning on their southern counterparts, it’s “London… “ Perc pursues this concept to a logical, merciless conclusion with “Jmurph”, where what sounds like a malfunctioning jackhammer descends into atonal repetition, but by that stage it is patently obvious that this is a unique album, birthed and moulded in Britain.
It is true to say that in the past year, there has been a swing away from the purist-influenced narrative that dominated techno and towards something less easily definable but nonetheless darker and more industrial. Certainly, this release is a meeting of contemporary techno’s most adventurous minds. In one corner we have Stroboscopic Artefacts, the label run by Berlin-based Lucy, the outlet that has joined Prologue at the forefront of dense, textured techno and Modern Heads, aka Dino Sabatini and Gianluca Meloni, one of the acts representing this sound.
In the other corner stands Perc, aka Ali Wells, one of the most prolific yet diverse producers of recent years. Although Wells favours a more abrasive sound, this release sees both styles meet in the middle. “Mendax” is a driving track, taking the listener into a never-ending tunnel bathed in grey light. Eventually, this lifts to reveal oncoming sheet metal percussion, but then Modern Heads bring the listener back into a sonic soup with their trademark, dense textures. “Percdax” and “Modax” draw more heavily on Perc’s sound: based on more shuffling, dubstep rhythms, the pounding, almost distorted basslines, heavy claps and eerie sound scapes ensure that the need for a straight kick is negated. That said, if these tracks don’t move you, nothing will.
With almost 40 releases to its credit and few creative slip ups along the way, there can be little doubt that Ali ‘Perc’ Wells’s imprint is one of the UK’s great modern techno labels. What sets Perc Trax apart is that its owner allows his artists to explore a range of creative avenues without losing sight of the label’s adherence to what defines it: techno music. Unsurprisingly, like most Perc releases, these remixes of “1909” are utterly distinctive: Millie’s version combines wobbly sub-bass and eerie atmospherics, in one fell swoop capturing the essence of two great UK electronic music traditions – the lurching swagger of bass and the menace of industrial. Perc’s own reshape sounds intent on achieving the same, but this time stepping rhythms are fused with bursts of droning noise and distorted, grainy drums that evoke memories of classic noisenik Landstrumm. By contrast, the original version seems restrained, but there is no doubt that the titanium drums and bad-ass bass will worry even the most resilient sound system. Finally, Perc welcome a transatlantic guest as New York DJ Derek Plaslaiko, who is due to release original material on Perc soon, drops a mangled, distorted bass over straighter 4/4 beats and steely rhythms. Forget the fads and hipsters - this releases shows UK electronic music at its most inspired.
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