I know, I know. I said once before that I’m not going to blog about music. That post was about Warp’s ‘Artificial Intelligence’ series from 1992-4, of which Dimension Intrusion – the debut album by English-born Canadian DJ & musician Richie Hawtin – was my favourite release. Now re-released, remastered and packaged with a load of previously-unheard bonuses, it’s time for a revisit with fresh ears. Can I listen to it detached from a quarter-century of associations and memories?
I’ve just been reading the late Mark Fisher’s collected writing, “K-Punk“. He makes the point, repeatedly, that culture has stagnated. He argues that there’s no longer any notion of forward motion – no future that’s aimed towards any more – just upgrades and incremental change.
Listening to any music you loved a long time ago can be a poignant experience (more so if you haven’t listened to it in the meantime, so the associations it evokes are of the era in which you listened to it). Electronica in the 1990s seems to have been the last great leap forward in popular music. It’s exciting, here, to listen to the future be worked out, a time of sonic modernism.
The original sleevenotes to Dimension Intrusion do a far better job of giving a potted history of Detroit Techno in the immediate aftermath of its late 80s heyday than I could, so here they are:
So, this album was a collection of some of the tracks off Hawtin’s 12″ F.U.S.E. releases from 91-92 and newer, previously-unreleased material. It isn’t the case that he had started off aiming for the dancefloor and then his music softened and became more introspective. At the same time as he was producing tracks like the gorgeous “Dimensions”, he was still releasing hardcore techno on his sub-label Probe. This was an era when there were so many sub-genres being generated – every few months (it seemed) – that artists needed several monikers in order to pursue different directions, for different audiences.
Anyway, back to today. The re-release (I bought the digital version) comes in a box with vinyl copies of the records, a book, and art prints of the covers by Hawtin’s brother Matthew. Yeah, sounds great, but at £300 he’s priced most of us out, so iTunes it is…
What the set contains is the remastered Dimension Intrusion with two bonus tracks, the Train Tracs single he released in the autumn of 93, also with a bonus track (but missing one of the originals), and the completely new (to us) Computer Space. This was recorded subsequent to the other material, in late 1993 and was the sound of Hawtin experimenting en route to becoming Plastikman, the name under which he’s released most of his material since.
So, the original album. It’s a year or so since I last listened to it, but each track is burned into my brain (or so I thought) from literally hundreds of listens.
Opener “A New Day” was always one of my highlights. I remember returning from Glastonbury festival in 1993, a few weeks after the album was released, and after an overnight bus journey from Bristol I arrived home to a typical east of Scotland summer dawn. Thick fog blanketed the Firth of Tay, visibility was about 200 metres. I put this on to give it a first proper listen. Never before or since has a piece of music so perfectly captured the moment, or the weather. The remaster clarifies the mix somewhat: the soft modulations of the bass are clearer, and more distinct.
“F.U.” is one of the better known tracks; previously on a 12″ and remixed subsequently (and later further mutated into the blistering “Call It What You Want” that marked Plus8’s 50th release). It signals a sudden shift in mood – this is for the dancefloor – and it comes as a shock after the beguiling opener.
“Slac” is arguably the strangest track on the record, and probably closest to some of the later Plastikman stuff (it was the most recently-recorded track). Rarely have Roland 303s been so elastic-sounding, their particular bubbling sound so introspective. The 808 rhythm has a stuttering funk that Plastikman would later adopt and adapt.
The title track comes next and is lovely, returning to the melancholic mood set by “A New Day”. Originally released on red vinyl and backed with “Into the Space”, this would have been a shock to Plus8’s early fans, as it sounded nothing like the blistering techno the label had hitherto released. Here, it sounds perfectly at home.
Side 2 of the original vinyl opened with (at the time) Hawtin’s most famous track, “Substance Abuse”. Pure dark acid house, brutal and pummelling. It may be tame by later standards, but this was extreme stuff in 1991. And along with “F.U.” it sounds unmistakably “1991”.
On the original album, “Train Trac.1” came next but that’s been shifted to the separate single release here. I always thought it and the next track “Another Time (Revisited)” were the poorest on the album, but both pushed new ground. If they weren’t as obviously seductive as some of the other tracks, they showed the range of abstract emotions that Hawtin – that electronic music – was capable of. It needn’t just be to dance to, or come down to afterwards.
What we have here now is the first unreleased track, “Downbeat”. It sounds more primitive than the others, which makes me think it’s an early recording. It’s a bit closer in instrumentation to the tracks Hawtin contributed to the Plus8 compilation From Our Minds to Yours Volume 1, maybe a bridge between the somewhat shapeless ambience of “Infusion” on that release and the newer Dimension Intrusion tracks. Not quite dancefloor, but not yet as introspective as the slower pieces. It lacks the atmosphere of the best tracks here, but is pleasant enough and would sit better on the original Artificial Intelligence compilation than the track that Hawtin actually contributed (“Spiritual High”). And yes, in 1993 it was still perfectly acceptable to name a track something as literal as “Downbeat”.
The centrepiece of the album is “Theychx”, thirteen minutes of explorative tiptoeing electronica underpinned by cavernous bass punctuations. Samples from (among other things) George Lucas’s THX1138 drift in and out of the mix. “Recorded in the midnight hours” say the sleevenotes, and that’s what it sounds like: a tired brain circling and circling and prey to stray messages. The remaster brings out background sounds – gracenotes of percussion – I had never heard before.
Side 4 of the original vinyl, the final tracks, were for me always the highlight. The mood – poignant, introspective – which was re-established on “Theychx” never let up. But now we have an interloper. The other unreleased track, “Time Stop” is closer in mood to the brooding “Another Time” (reflecting on the track titles just now, listening to the percussion in both I think this is actually the original version of that track). Interesting to hear, but definitely one of the weaker tracks, and it sounds as out of place in the flow of the album as “Downbeat” does.
Two outstanding tracks follow in succession. “UVA” and “Mantrax”, though far apart in tempo (the latter is always much faster than I remember, every time I listen to it) both evoke a mood of calm melancholy. I don’t know what effects units Hawtin used at the time, but the slight flange he adds to his TR808 is for me a signature sign of this record; it was rare in those days for drum sounds (pre-Aphex, pre-Autechre) to sound at all abstract or to add anything to the mood: they were there to propel the beat.
But this music was not for dancing to. “Nitedrive” is pure ambient sweetness; plangent, spacey and (to some ears, but not these) a bit sugary. The real surprise for me on this remaster, though, is “Into The Space”, the closing track. While it always seemed a fairly appropriate ending I never particularly liked it. The ponderous tempo and something about the mixing of the different sounds made it a bit of a dirge. Now, however, it’s awesome. The bass is massive, to such an extent that it changes the entire dynamic of the track and becomes the real focus: everything else rides on its slow pulses. For the first time in many years I found myself actively listening to it, like something new.
That’s the album, smartened up and sounding better than ever. “Train Trac”, as I said, was never a track I particularly liked, but the remixes had interest. Released at the same time as his Plastikman debut (the what-the-fuck-was-that percussion frenzy of “Spastik”), this spans a range of moods. The dancefloor is catered for in “Drum Trac” and “Train Abuse”, the horizontal listeners get the lovely thirteen-minute Arctic wilderness of “Kaboose”, and there were a couple of pulsing, electromagnetic mixes from Hawtin (“The Day After”) and labelmate Mark Gage (of Vapourspace), whose mix isn’t included here.
But what of the real draw? Computer Space is a mini-album recorded (seemingly) later in 1993 as Hawtin plotted a new way forward, and that’s exactly what it sounds like.
The track “Computer Space” is a half-hour jam, and good background music but not something you’ll actively listen to that often. Hawtin is plainly exploring, trying to find new moods and ways of expression. Not worth releasing on it’s own (now or then) but as the mini-album is on iTunes for around £3, it’s a bargain.
“Runner”, though, should have been put out at the time. A dark cousin – or ancestor – of the 2001 F.U.S.E. release “NT”, I don’t know why this has been kept in storage for so long. It really kicks, and would sound immense in a club.
As it spirals towards a crescendo, “Sanctuary” reminds me of the first and best ambient collaboration Hawtin did with the late Pete Namlook, 1994’s From Within. If you liked the more upbeat tracks on that – “Homeward Bound”, for instance – you’ll love “Sanctuary”. I do.
“Last Day” is a coda, acting as “Lost” does on From Within. A palate-cleanser that really works only in the context of this release.
Sure, some of this music now sounds dated but so what? At least it can *be* dated: that is, you can tell from which year – in some cases, at what point in a given year – it comes from. It doesn’t sound (as so much contemporary music does), that it could have been created at any point in the last decade.
How many tracks now could you say sounded like, or captured the sound of, their year of production? How many tracks could you say “that sounds so 2014″. Even in 1994 you could tell the difference between a track from 1990 and one from 1991, such was the rapid pace of evolution.
I’m not saying there’s no good music emerging today: there plainly is, and there always will be. Just that I agree with Fisher that there’s no sign of any musical revolution, and it’s a quarter-century since the last one (jungle/drum & bass).
Listening, a quarter of a century later, to tracks which suggest a future that never arrived is a different experience than listening to songs from the late 60s would have been in the early 90s. Those (Beatles, say) songs may have sound dated in 1993, but that’s because they were rendered obsolete by progress: their sound was surpassed, new evolutions and revolutions – punk, post-punk, hip-hop, acid, whatever – came and went. Listening to 90s techno, although the standard of production has improved, that’s all that has. Today’s tracks may sound objectively “better” because of the technological advances, but that doesn’t make them a step forward.
A dark reflection of those 90s releases is found, not in contemporary club artists, but in those such as Pye Corner Audio, whose evocation of empty warehouses years after the rave, of distorted, badly remembered dancefloor moments, more accurately captures the feeling that somewhere along the line, the future that techno and it’s related genres was pushing toward, was lost.