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

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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

2014: End of Year Wrap-up

First Aid Kit 'Stay Gold' album artwork

2014 was a year where I probably wrote more than any other year, but hardly any of it was for the Documentary Evidence site that began my journey into music writing over a decade ago. The year saw me start what turned out to be a slow and not exactly fun process of moving content from my original site to a new WordPress home, a process which will have to accelerate soon given that all of my archive writing for DocEv is now offline.

Most of my writing this year was for Clash, where I continue to contribute three of four short album reviews each month. This year I made a conscious effort to diversify who I write for, and lucked out when Electronic Sound gave me a last-minute opportunity to cover Jonteknik‘s debut Apt album for the innovative iPad magazine (I know Jon hates end of year round-ups, but Jon, I owe you a beer for that album and the door it opened for me with Electronic Sound – thanks.)

Since then I’ve delivered a number of pieces for the magazine, culminating in a major feature on Simian Mobile Disco in the summer. It’s an absolute honour and privilege to be working for Electronic Sound. The magazine’s team includes two people who undoubtedly shaped my interest in music writing back when I read Muzik as a teenager, back when I had no aspirations toward writing at all. Through their guidance I’ve become a better writer. I’ve also learned the value of full stops again.

I also started going to concerts and writing live reviews again this year. I reviewed Laibach, Nik Kershaw and Erasure for This is Not Retro (all with typically brilliant photos by Andy Sturmey), as well as a clutch of gigs at my closest music venue, The Stables, for a local Milton Keynes site (TotalMK) – Dylan Howe (my first jazz piece), Tom Baxter and Martha Wainwright.

2014 saw me write the least I ever have in the last five years about Mute releases. I covered the latest Cabaret Voltaire compilation, Erasure’s The Violet Flame and the Plastikman live album for Electronic Sound, Liars‘ Mess for Feeder and a couple of albums for my own Documentary Evidence site, but on the whole I’ve largely ignored Mute releases this year. Partly this is because I’ve been busy with other music writing, and partly it’s because I have struggled to keep up with the sheer volume of albums that the label have issued this year.

Critics are afforded the opportunity at the year end to come up with their favourite album of the year and so I feel justified in doing the same. Head and shoulders above everything else, for this writer it was Stay Gold by First Aid Kit. As is so often the case with the albums that capture your imagination the most, this was an album that I was hardly interested in when I read the press release.

I came back from a three and a half week vacation in New York and Florida in May and immediately found myself being asked to review a clutch of new albums by bands I’d mostly never really heard of before with hardly any time between them being commissioned and the print deadline. One of those records was Stay Gold. First Aid Kit are two sisters from Sweden and the press release seemed to lump them in with a folk scene that I am not always comfortable with, so I wasn’t exactly excited about covering this one.

Sitting on the train on a sunny, May morning, still feeling jet lagged and wondering why I ever signed up to write the reviews when I was so jaded and missing America, I decided to start with the First Aid Kit album and within seconds – the slide guitar sweep that quickly ushers in the opening track, ‘My Silver Lining’ – I was hooked and alert. Something about the music just talked to me in a way that lots of music never has before and I still can’t put my finger on precisely why; it’s possibly the combination of youthful innocence mixed with a sort of mature worldliness with which First Aid Kit approach their songs that got me, possibly the close harmonies of the two sisters, possibly the stirring quality of the title track ‘Stay Gold’ – I still don’t know, really.

What I do know is that a pair of lines on ‘Master Pretender’ – ‘Oh the streets of New York City / Look so pretty from way up here‘ – seemed to capture everything that I missed about New York and tapped into the way I was feeling as I closed the door on an incredible family holiday and went back into an uncertain work life.

Toward the end of the year I found myself listening to a lot more female singers – Martha Wainwright, Addie Brownlee and a singer called Natalie Prass, who I was introduced to by the same PR chap that sent me First Aid Kit (thanks Nathan), and whose debut album is really, really impressive; the sort of sound that might see this young singer scale the same heights as one Amy Winehouse did, all soulful sensuality of a style that has – criminally – more or less fallen out of favour. Check out ‘Why Don’t You Believe In Me’ below.

Oh, and in the last few days I’ve been playing a Canadian band called Viet Cong whose self-titled debut (out January) made me get all nostalgic for classic Interpol again, even if their debut knocks spots off my beloved New York band’s 2014 El Pintor effort.

Wishing all the readers of this blog a very Happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year.

Favourite sounds: First Aid Kit Stay Gold, Conor Oberst Upside-down Mountain, Ryan Adams Ryan Adams, Fats Waller, jazz, ‘Rhapsody In Blue’ by Gershwin, soundtracks to Woody Allen films, The Residents ‘Santa Dog’, Ghostly International, Front and Follow, my eldest daughter playing Latin guitar, my youngest daughter whistling or practicing her keyboard

Least favourite sounds: the announcer on X Factor, ‘What Does The Fox Say?’, arguments and shouting, alarm clocks

Record shops visited: Resident (Brighton), Rough Trade (New York)

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