Plastikman – Sheet One (NovaMute album, 1993)

sheetone

Plastikman ‘Sheet One’ 2xLP NovaMute sleeve.

Released in October 1993 on NovaMute, Sheet One brought Windsor, Ontario’s Richie Hawtin‘s Plastikman onto the label’s roster, Daniel Miller‘s imprint effectively licencing the album for the UK and Europe from Hawtin’s own Plus 8 label.

While Sheet One became notorious for all the wrong (or right) reasons by the CD sleeve’s recreation of a perforated sheet of LSD tabs, with the requisite and implausible rumours that the sleeve really did have acid on it, what’s most surprising is that electronic music designed to be listened to at home or in a club, as opposed to merely in a club, was still a relatively unusual thing twenty years ago. Warp’s Artificial Intelligence compilations (the first volume of which had included Hawtin in his UP! guise) and the series of clever electronica releases clustered around them – such as Polygon Window’s Surfing On Sinewaves and Black Dog Productions’ Bytes, as well as early releases from sometime NovaMute signee Speedy J and Autechre – had paved the way for a new strain of dance music that didn’t require any form of dancing at all.

If Sheet One found itself dropped neatly into that whole Artificial Intelligence genre, it set itself apart by eschewing the notion that these tracks couldn’t be played in clubs. Throughout the album’s eleven tracks, Hawtin maintained a focus on pared-back rhythms more usually found on acid house tracks, perhaps slowed down a fraction compared to the then-popular number of BPMs but not inconsistent with the original tracks by the likes of Phuture from the decade before. Added to that was Hawtin’s love of the key ingredient of acid house tracks – the Roland TB303 – which gave these tracks an energy and vibrancy that most armchair techno seemed to forget to include. Okay, so the 303s weren’t tweaked as hard as Hawtin would do on, say, his astonishing remix of System 7’s ‘Alpha Wave’, but they nevertheless contained enough of a squelchy urgency to get most acid heads excited and if would only take a modicum of pitch-shifting to get these tracks into a more adventurous DJ set.

The other distinctive element on Sheet One, and the element that meant it was able to align itself with the Artificial Intelligence crowd, was the use of reverb. Everything on Sheet One is swathed in rich levels of treacly echo, giving the textures here a languid, atmospheric and vaguely chilling quality. That echoing aspect always reminded me of the eerie static hum that wrapped itself around Kraftwerk‘s Radio-Activity album, and for some reason also made me think of some of the haunting passages on the soundtrack to Teen Wolf. I used to study and revise to Sheet One and its equally-enthralling follow-up Musik, which perhaps credentialises the atmospheric quotient.

In many ways the central track on Sheet One is ‘Plasticine’, an eleven minute epic consisting of a minimal pulse, nervous bass tones and a 303 line that rises up seemingly out of nowhere, bringing with it a more rigid beat and a degree of dark energy. Hearing a 303 like this, where it is presented more or less nakedly, shows just how weirdly versatile Roland’s instrument was – even if it’s being deployed in a way that the manufacturer never intended. A breathy voice that seems to be saying ‘it’s you’ adds to the overall vibe of a haunted, alien dancefloor. ‘Plasticine’ has all the requisite rises and falls associated with most dance music, only here it’s elongated, extended and somehow much more emotionally affecting. The track’s final moments are comprised of deep bass resonances and a thudding remnant of what used to be the beat.

The similarly-timed ‘Plasticity’ is the other stand-out track here, with the sounds of aircraft rumble ushering in a echo-soaked rhythm and ruminative 303 melody. There’s a floating, shapeless quality to some of the other sounds deployed on ‘Plasticity’ – brief melodic pads, clicking, noisy interventions, what might be a euphoric yelp or an anguished scream – giving this a psychotic vibe that would have suited a desperate chase scene in a movie. ‘Smak’ goes even further – a dense web of heavy beats and brooding synths underpinned by strings that evoke comparisons with Laibach and samples of screaming angst.

Any uplifting quality is there offset by a far darker energy, ebbing away into ‘Ovokx’, which reveals the stark message to the world’s population sampled from The Day The Earth Stood Still.

‘Gak’ departs from the regimentation of the 4/4 rhythm and instead opts for a clattering, bass-heavy electro beat draped in layers of cavernous reverb, and double-time percussion that leans close to the skeletal bone-rattling that would come on ‘Spastik’, an effect which is also deployed on the urgent ‘Helikopter’. ‘Helikopter’ really does sound like the rapidly rotating blades of a chopper, layers of hard-spun sound rotating around your ears with an infinite swirl. In complete contrast, ‘Vokx’ is a quiet, stirring cinematic symphony for the scene that surveys the scarred landscape, the second half dominated by sirens, screams and panicked sections of dialogue.

Sheet One is an unsettlingly unique album, and one that knocked its peers out of the park, retaining enough of techno’s key energy rather than disposing with it altogether. Twenty-five years on, it sounds as sharply arresting as it did at the time, while other albums from the time sound positively dull. The follow-up album, 1994’s Musik, was just as attention-grabbing but leaned harder into a more scientifically-assembled experimentalism, highlighting Hawtin’s restless dexterity.

Sheet One was released as a CD and vinyl edition in the UK. There were two versions of the vinyl album, the 2000 copy limited edition picturedisc version of which is now something of a collectors’ item. In 2012 Mute released a remastered Sheet One in the wake of Hawtin’s expansive Arkives 1993 – 2010 boxset, ditching the original NovaMute catalogue reference (nomu22) and replacing it with a Mute one (stumm347).

First published 2013; edited 2019.

(c) 2019 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Miss Kittin & The Hacker – Lost Tracks Vol. 2 (Dark Entries single, 2018)

Artwork_MissKittinTheHacker_LostTracksVol2

“We were naive, innocent, adventurous and we didn’t expect anything in return,” is how onetime NovaMute artist Caroline Hervé described her partnership with Michel Amato, which formed after the pair met at a rave in 1996. Better known in the French dance music scene as Miss Kittin and The Hacker respectively, the duo wrote irreverent, sexually-charged music together that had techno as its foundation but which was just as influenced by the likes of D.A.F. and other early Eighties acts operating at the vanguard of electronic music.

Lost Tracks Vol. 2 compiles together four previously unreleased tracks from 1997 / 98, just before their debut EP and some three years ahead of their album releases for DJ Hell’s International DJ Gigolo imprint. On the fidgety opener ‘Upstart’, you can hear that soundclash between late Nineties techno and early Eighties synthpop with a sequenced bassline and icicle-sharp monophonic melodic clusters that sound like an offcut of François Kevorkian’s celebrated remixes of ‘Situation’ by Yazoo. ‘Love On 26’ deals with millennium angst over a bed of jerky electro and squelchy 303 hooks, while the grubby ‘Snuff Movies’ is The Normal’s ‘T.V.O.D.’ recast with the protagonist watching grim underground VHS tapes instead of Fifties road movies.

Closing track ‘The Building’ is a thudding acid house number with industrial edges, devoid of any human feeling whatsoever, complete with a spoken vocal from Hervé that’s as cloying as that deployed by Flying Lizards on ‘Money’. Truly fine lost gems from this inventive pairing.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Richie Hawtin – DE9 Closer To The Edit (NovaMute album, 2002)

novamute | nomu90cd | 2002
Richie Hawtin, outside his Plastikman guise, is a consistently engaging and exciting DJ, and has been responsible for breathing new life into techno. His individual and pioneering approach to DJing is captured perfectly here.

DE9 is ostensibly a mix album, but it could also be described as a solo Hawtin album released under his own name. Except that it is both and neither simultaneously. Like a regular mix CD, the album rolls forward with no breaks, as if it were one very long and varied track, utilising builds and breakdowns, sharp fades, EQ tweaking and edits to control the pace and keep the sound interesting and fresh. There are 31 tracks here, all in little over an hour, each running for around two minutes. This in itself would stand out as a feat of considerable DJ dexterity, except that there are in fact over 70 tracks here, and it is at this point that Hawtin’s album diverges entirely from the genre.

Hawtin has long been an advocate of bringing ‘live’ elements to his DJ sets, using drum machines and Roland TB-303s over decks to avoid being like many other DJs who simply mix tracks together; hence Hawtin comfortably straddles the DJ / live performance divide. Many others have tried this, but Hawtin’s continuing focus on techno exclusively has seen him retain a focused set of underground credentials. DE9 is the logical, yet painstaking next step for Hawtin’s unique DJing approach (‘DE’ stands for ‘Decks and Effects’).

The seventy tracks, by Basic Channel and Carl Craig among others also include a number by Hawtin himself, culled from his Minus and Plastikman / NovaMute releases. Except don’t go trying to spot them – according to his liner notes (how jazz is that?), Hawtin took extracts from tracks (‘Ranging from 1 note to 4 bars’) and created around 700 loops, which were then reassembled as new tracks, representing the 31 chapters here. Another artist may have seized the opportunity, given the heavy disguising of the source material, to pass this off as his own work. But Hawtin, the innovator, is proud of his process, and readily lists which tracks make up each chapter.

I hadn’t listened to techno for several years before listening to this, but this gives me incredible faith in the genre, and I don’t think I’ve heard such a sonically-pleasing compilation of robotic electronic music before. This is one hell of an impressive futuristic journey.

Originally posted 2004; edited 2016.

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Elevation – Can You Feel It / Spiral Trance (NovaMute single, 1992)

  

single // Can You Feel It / Spiral Trance

novamute | 12″/cd nomu3 | 1992

Ask any dance music fanatic what word they would associate with the year 1992 and the chances are they will reply, without hesitation, ‘hardcore’. Hardcore dance music was a fusion of sped-up breakbeats, thudding drums, speaker-wrecking dub bass, crowd noise, whistles and a synth effect that could only ever be described as sounding like a hoover; the effect was a sort of bludgeoning euphoria. Hardcore was, at times, ridiculous and the genre was ultimately short-lived, mutating quickly into a multitude of other genres, not least of which was the even more breakbeat-heavy jungle.

Elevation, a pseudonym of producer Shaun Imrei, has all the trademark hardcore traits listed above, plus housey piano and some gutsy, euphoric vocals courtesy of an unnamed contributor (she sounds a little like Sylvia Tella, who guested on Pop Will Eat Itself’s 92ºF) which rescues ‘Can You Feel It’ from the nihilistic quality of some other hardcore tunes, and also ensuring the track could work in a variety of DJ boxes. Okay, so the piano sounds a little weak and the whistles, bells and crowd noise may feel a bit contrived twenty odd years later, but there’s no denying the uplifting energy that ‘Can You Feel It’ possesses, marking the track out as a major highlight in a dance music style that rapidly went off the boil. And that manic ‘hoover’ sound still sounds as thrilling today, even if its potential as a rival to the TB303 was limited. The 12″ and CD released by NovaMute contains mixes taken from the tune’s original release on Creative Rhythm earlier in 1992, as well as a previously unreleased version (the Mutation Mix) which contains a breakdown filled with an excellent King Tubby-style dub passage.

For its NovaMute release, ‘Can You Feel It’ was backed by ‘Spiral Trance’ which was produced by Imrei and John O’Halloran. Starting with some ethereal vocals that sound like they belong on a Clannad record, ‘Spiral Trance’ retains only the barest trace elements of a hardcore aesthetic in some of its sounds, instead offering a deep, entrancing cut which doesn’t sound dissimilar to early Orbital or Juno Reactor. There’s not a heavy breakbeat in sight, Imrei and O’Halloran opting instead for a carefully-constructed 4/4 beat and a bass sound that could spill over into acid madness, but doesn’t, and for once this song is all the better for it.

12″/cd:
A1. / 1. Can You Feel It (Mutation Mix)
A2. / 2. Can You Feel It (Extended Mix)
B1. / 3. Spiral Trance (Into The Light Mix)
B2. / 4. Can You Feel It (Remix)

Originally posted 2012; re-posted 2015.

(c) 2015 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

The 7th Plain – Wishbone

    

The 7th Plain was an alias that future NovaMute / Mute artist Luke Slater used for a brief time, the first album issued under the name being the brilliant My Wise Yellow Rug released in 1994 by General Production Recordings (GPR). The 7th Plain found Slater operating in a firmly ambient mode, complementing the more dancefloor-friendly tracks he issued under his Planetary Assault Systems alias.

‘Wishbone’ doesn’t appear on My Wise Yellow Rug, but it sounds like it should have been included there. Here Slater lays down a rich, slowly-developing tapestry of mostly pleasant sounds underpinned by a hissing rhythm that sits somewhere between skeletal electro and the factory-like drum pattern from Depeche Mode’s ‘Ice Machine’. Toward the end Slater introduces a bassline constructed from a somewhat darker synth sound while a repetitive arpeggio sequence takes on a queasy insistence as the track concludes.

Throughout, even as Slater drops in what feels like a organic, jazzy looseness at the very beginning via vaguely piano riffs, there’s an underlying mechanistic, robotic quality to ‘Wishbone’; that reminds me of a review of one of the tracks on My Wise Yellow Rug which compared the track in question to Vince Clarke covering Vangelis’s theme to Blade Runner. In the interests of full disclosure, I actually bought the album on the strength of that line alone. At the time it wasn’t apparent that Slater would go on to become a Mute artist, but I was pleased he ultimately signed to the label, though I can honestly say that his work as The 7th Plain was always more interesting to me than the output under his own name.

Equanimity was released as a double compilation by the GPR label in 1995 and features some really good tracks from Max 404, D:Fuse, Beaumont Hannant, Russ Gabriel and other artists from the imprint’s roster. It sits squarely alongside the Warp series of Artificial Intelligence / listening electronica albums but at times seems to have much more of a concrete, robust edge compared to some of the ambient noodling that Warp’s series tended towards. With Max 404 and a crunchy Bari-speed rave track from the absurdly-named Radioactive Lamb being two possible exceptions, it would have been slightly inconceivable to find any of the tracks here finding themselves sitting comfortably in a techno set of the time, but an adventurous DJ could have probably found a way. They usually could.

(c) 2015 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Various Artists – Artificial Intelligence (Warp compilation, 1992)

  
compilation // Artificial Intelligence

Warp’s groundbreaking Artificial Intelligence compilation did what so many other seminal compilations did and effectively made a scene concrete. Like Eno’s No New York did for post-punk in the US, it could be argued confidently that Warp did the same for the particular brand of electronica over which the Sheffield label presided, spawning a series of intriguing albums by the label that gave voice to many of the artists that were showcased on the compilation.

Artificial Intelligence arrived in 1992, the same year that hardcore had rudely woken the listening public from their slumber, and on many of the tracks included here there’s still a whiff of detuned breakbeats as opposed to the haphazard glitch beats that the likes of Autechre would come to represent over the next two decades. In fact, Autechre’s ‘Crystel’, one of two tracks by Sean Booth and Rob Brown included here, sounds positively like a conventional instrumental synthpop track compared to the jagged rhythms and icy melodies they would become poster children for. Tracks like Musicology’s ‘Preminition’ are not exactly the bedroom listening we came to expect from the AI series, and instead sound like straightforward rave tracks, complete with menacing basslines and euphoric soul samples.

Of interest to Mute / NovaMute fans are three tracks from Speedy J and Richie Hawtin, here operating under his short-lived UP! alias. Hawtin’s ‘Spiritual High’ was originally released on a 12” song on Hawtin’s Probe label, and later released as one side of NovaMute’s Probe Mission 2 12” as part of a tentative partnership between the UK and Canadian labels (the other track on that 12” was by Public Energy, an alias of Speedy J). For a track taken from a relatively early part of Hawtin’s career, the format of his later work is immediately recognisable in the thudding snare-heavy beats, acid squelches and the way his track repeats endlessly but still builds toward several peaks over the course of its six minute duration.

‘Fill 3’ by Speedy J forms part of a series of tracks with that title, but as far as I can tell, was an exclusive to Artificial Intelligence. By the time Jochem Paap had arrived at NovaMute his music had undergone many changes, and ‘Fill 3’ sounds positively naïve in comparison with his later work, though with its synth pads and shimmering textures it is undoubtedly one of the most pleasantly ambient tracks on the whole collection. Given the momentum implied by its bubbling patterns and fragile melodies, it feels like it’s crying out for a beat sequence of some form, but to J’s credit he resisted the temptation of adding one. The other Speedy J track on Artificial Intelligence, ‘De-Orbit’, was featured on his Warp album Ginger and is a slowed-down, chilled-out affair with hip-hops breaks, wherein the languid pace allows for intricate details to emerge through the greater sense of space.

Alongside Autechre, Artificial Intelligence showcased Warp stalwart Aphex Twin, here in his Dice Man guise but with a track from his Polygon Window album for the label, as well as B12 (Musicology) and The Black Dog under the name I.A.O. The album also included Orb’s Alex Paterson with a live version of the classic ‘Loving You’, though it’s not immediately apparent what makes this a Paterson solo effort rather than an Orb performance.

1994’s follow-up compilation mined the same vein, with many of the same players, but branched out further, and also illustrated how much the electronic music could evolve in just two short years. For this reviewer, I bought Artificial Intelligence 2 before the first instalment, and listening in reverse made this first compilation sound decidedly tentative, but I nevertheless fully understood the importance of what Warp had assembled here.

(c) 2015 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Object – NovaMute DJ Record Bag (MuteBank merchandise, 1996)

  
Sometime in 1996 I bought this NovaMute-branded DJ record bag from MuteBank. I think I’d been persuaded after seeing it advertised in the first MuteBank A4 catalogue, Statement #1. The bag in the catalogue has a white NovaMute logo on the front, but when mine arrived it was pure black, with a shiny black logo on the flap. Statement #1 lists the DJ bag with a catalogue reference of MBM31 – MuteBank Merchandise 31.

My plan had been to use this as the bag that I’d use to cart my university texts and papers around campus. Back then you could identify the guys who were into dance music by the record bags they’d lug around, as they’d always be branded up with some funky label or record shop. It was a signal of solidarity. I wanted to nail my colours to the NovaMute mast but when the bag arrived I decided to use it instead for its intended purpose, namely storing records.

The pure black, thick plastic record bag with its shiny ‘classic’ NovaMute logo did its job more than adequately, but I no longer need it. It’s in perfect condition and its age is only given away by the fact that a) NovaMute don’t exist any longer; b) they ditched this ‘classic’ logo in favour of plain text inside a rectangular box several years after I bought this (which was always a shame, I thought); and c) no-one makes bags like this anymore. I think it can hold about 30 12″ records and has pockets under the flap for the random stuff that DJs probably used to carry around to clubs back in the day. 

If anyone wants to buy it off me, get in touch. Otherwise you’ll find it on eBay at the weekend. Note that this is the start of a major decluttering initiative on my part, which will see me offloading lots of things, including (I suspect) the bulk of my Mute record collection.

(c) 2015 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence