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

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

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

Electronic Sound: Issue 7 Reviews – Cabaret Voltaire, Plastikman, Fatal Casualties, Spacebuoy

Cabaret Voltaire '#7885' CD artwork Plastikman 'EX' CD artwork

Four of my reviews appeared in issue 7 of the digital magazine Electronic Sound, available for iPad or as a PDF file.

First up is the new Cabaret Voltaire album #7885 – Electropunk To Technopop (1978 – 1985) (Mute), the first Cabs compilation to bring together both their Rough Trade and Some Bizarre / Virgin periods. The album comes complete with revealing technical liner notes from Richard H. Kirk and longstanding fan and Mute MD Daniel Miller.

Richie Hawtin releases a new Plastikman album this month. EX (Mute) was recorded live at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York at the personal request of Dior head designer Raf Simons for the museum’s annual fundraiser in late 2013, and saw Hawtin offer an entirely new suite of Plastikman tracks. Fans of dark acid ambience recorded in highbrow surroundings need look no further.

Fatal Casualties 'Psalm' LP artwork Spacebuoy 'Intoxicated' CD artwork

Issue 7 of Electronic Sound also includes my reviews of two non-Mute bands whose work I’ve featured on Documentary Evidence over the past couple of years. Swedish darkcore electronic duo Fatal Casualties have released their debut album Psalm on the consistently interesting Seja imprint. A dark, cloying album filled with intricate Depeche Mode-isms and Downward Spiral-era vibe of Nine Inch Nails, Psalm is far from an easy listen but fully realises the aesthetic that the duo of Stefan Ljungdahl and Ivan Hirvonen have painstakingly developed on their previous two singles for Seja.

Also delivering their much-anticipated debut, electronic duo Spacebuoy (Howard Moth and Jez Allan-Smith) release Intoxicated this month. Erasure fans will recall that Spacebuoy were the support act for the veteran synthpop duo’s warm-up for the Total Pop forest tour, and since 2013’s Breathe EP the pair have been hard at work crafting the tracks for their first album. Intoxicated straddles both classic electronic pop and harder trance and techno-inflected styles, making for an interesting and varied debut release.

The iPad edition of Electronic Sound can be purchased through iTunes. The PDF edition will be available through the Electronic Sound website soon.

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Electronic Sound

Beatz – Divergences & Contradictions Of Electronic Music (Analog Solutions film, 2014)

Beatz

Beatz – Divergences & Contradictions Of Electronic Music is a documentary film by DJ Eduardo De La Calle that surveys the health of the global dance music scene.

An independent – some might say underground – film, De La Calle’s methods veer toward the lo-fi, being largely just what he captured as he travelled around the world to interview many of dance music’s legends (Carl Craig, Derrick May, Marshall Jefferson, Carl Cox, Laurent Garnier, Juan Atkins) and newer talents in order to collect their views on what they think dance music has become and where it’s going.

Although the likes of Garnier ultimately deliver a spirited reading of the enduring vitality of the international club scene, elsewhere the vibe is uniformly sombre. Much decrying is made of the likes of Beatport as a means of manipulating tastes and pre-filtering selections for the listener in a way that record shops never did; similarly impassioned comments are delivered about the supposed commodification of dance music and mp3s – particularly unmastered tracks constructed of nothing more than three loops (echoes of punk’s limited musicianship aside, such tracks inevitably lack any particular human quality) – and DJs that eschew proper mixing in favour of simply queuing up poor quality mp3s and letting a machine synchronise them; one commentator likens buying records off the internet to drinking at home. Vinyl is seen as the golden medium, encouraging lots of fetishistic comments about its fragility, malleability and even artistic merit, while others counter this with a view that the medium itself doesn’t matter – it’s the ideas that make something original or not. Minus artist and Richie Hawtin protégé Matthew Jonson (they even dress the same and have the same hair) sums it up perfectly with ‘the machine will never have the idea’.

Throughout the film, the ‘human’ quality comes through in a loud way – perhaps somewhat surprisingly for a strand of music that is supposedly all about technology. That human dimension appears most negatively with diatribes against the super-DJ where showmanship has overtaken the actual music, or in discussions about ‘live’ versus programmed music where mistakes can happen, therefore allowing a real unpredictability can creep in. Carl Craig talks enthusiastically about the influence of jazz on dance music, an often overlooked input into the genre and one which perfectly illustrates the impact of individual flair over lumpen technology. Mute‘s own Apparat (Sascha Ring) offers his own slightly bemused reaction to talking to people in clubs and finding that people don’t know – or don’t care – who’s on the bill, as if the natural conclusion of the so-called facelessness of techno’s logical conclusion comes as a surprise to him.

The film is a bit rough around the edges, especially with regard to the subtitles, but this globetrotting film was shot with evident care and attention – much more so than most lo-fi productions. The soundtrack features a number of intricate pieces by De La Calle himself which had this reviewer feeling nostalgic for his old techno collection. For Mute fans, as well as Apparat, Speedy J and BMB‘s Surgeon also appear as talking heads.

The film can be streamed at Eduardo De La Calle’s website or below.

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence