Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Hiss & Shake - Legg's Eleven pt. 3

I’m increasingly interested in ways of hearing and how we listen to music. I like the way this is now so often unrelated to the cycle of production/release/promotion. The throttling of FM radio has corresponded with a rise in other outlets. I love, for example, how YouTube has informally evolved into a place to post/discover hopelessly rare recordings, thus adding extra colour to our store of knowledge in an often gloriously haphazard way. Curiously, illuminating information is often revealed in an almost accidental way via the occasional scan of a sleeve or record label in a slide show.
I have a habit of messing about looking up old drum ‘n’ bass 12”s shared on YouTube which I would never have owned or seen in their original format. I saw recently, for example, the original 12” of Five Miles High by TMF, which I knew from a compilation and was aware had links to No U-Turn via its offshoot Saigon and Nico or Nick Sykes. What had never really registered before was that the track had been written by Phil Legg, and that the pair (Phil Legg and Nick Sykes) had worked together on a few tracks under the TMF name, including the excellent flipside Drums In Space.
As much as I loved jungle/drum ‘n’ bass in its heyday my relation to it was oddly detached and disjointed. When it came to consumption I guess initially I heard the music through the randomness of radio piracy that reached my part of south east London at various times of the day (thus often never knowing what the tracks were) and then later through CDs and compilations that I played during the daily commute and found to be fantastic and effective active background noise against the clatter of wheels on tracks and the intrusive hubbub of carriage chat.
Listening to drum ‘n’ bass in this anti-social way I was increasingly drawn to the darker side: Doc Scot, Alex Reece, Dillinja, Metalheadz, Photek, Source Direct, and in particular the whole No U-Turn aesthetic and the incredible sounds Ed Rush, Nico and Trace were putting together. There seemed to be something incredibly romantic and exciting going on in the world they created, like Adrian Sherwood and the On-U Sound caught a particular sense of adventure before them. And if there is one record that captures the magic of that era it would be the Torque compilation, which still seems incredible and intimidating. Just about every area of musical activity has had its experimental elements and people creating haunted, bleak, twisted, tormented, sinister, shadowy, sinister, punishing music. There’s nothing unique about drum ‘n’ bass in that sense. But it has to be said that a lot of things written about No U-Turn were unintentionally hilarious, and would make you put your head in your hands and weep. Or drive you back to your Blood and Fire or Kent collections.
TMF’s Five Miles High still sounds wonderful, with its subtle guitar motif, crisp snares and ambient synth washes. It’s got that Good Looking/LTJ Bukem what I guess some used to call liquid funk feel, but I never really got the hang of all that pointless labelling and the divisive absurd sub-genres. I notice among the comments on YouTube someone has likened it to PFM’s The Western, and that’s one of those reference points that evokes a shiver of delight. It’s also interesting that various viewers identify the track with the soundtrack of one of the Gran Turismo games.
I know next-to-nothing about computer and video games, but I am intrigued by the way people have found music through that medium. During the last decade I noticed how, long after critical interest in the music had passed, drum ‘n’ bass began to appear increasingly on the soundtrack of everything from commercials to corporate videos to film and television productions, so yes it made sense for the same to apply to gaming. I began to realise how there must be a thriving market in the production and dissemination of drum ‘n’ bass music for these specific purposes. Indeed it struck me as wonderfully ironic that this was happening while I, together with many others, was becoming increasingly fascinated with library music, film and TV soundtrack work from an altogether earlier era. What also made me smile was that a lot of the more jazz fusion flavoured d’n’b had been dismissed as muzak as if that was somehow a crime, but then the same people might become oddly passionate about the KPM archives or Italian soundtrack/mood music.
I guess the online perusal of old drum ‘n’ bass 12”s, the beatification of old mixtapes, and so on now suggests things are moving in a, ahem, full cycle. The music still works its magic far removed from that particular breakbeat era. And it is always good to learn more. It, for example, had never really registered that the short-lived label Turn-U On put out a couple of early 12”s by Horsepower Productions, which for Nick Sykes was a bit of a departure from (or inversion of) the No U-Turn template, like the relationship between Rhythm & Sound and Basic Channel I guess you could argue. The work of Horsepower Productions has been something that has made me prick up my ears over the past decade, through their releases on Tempa, a label whose aesthetic and identity I’ve thoroughly approved of. The actual approach of Horsepower Productions has reminded me of Depth Charge/DC Recordings/Octagon Man and the godlike J. Saul Kane, hence a huge part of the appeal of their excellent if irregular collections.
No U-Turn and Tempa are labels specifically rooted in and associated with particular scenes and sounds. It is tempting to be envious of people who are dedicated to one defined moment or movement, and it is easy to be in awe of the level of detail and insider knowledge the specialists have at their disposal. But such focus on one actual area of activity so often means missing out on being able to make vital connections.

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