I recently put this mix together for Words On Tracks, featuring some of my musical influences, acknowledging key moments of my formative years, as well as some general favourites. Additionally, I wrote a commentary for each track, which you can read either on Words On Tracks' Facebook page, or here below the fold. Thanks to Fred for kindly inviting me. Be sure to give Words On Tracks a 'like' if you're on Facebook. Hope you enjoy it!
I’ve attempted to put together a set of tracks that have in some way acted as signposts in my own early musical journey. It’s effectively ended up as a love letter to the kind of electronica that enjoyed the most success during the decade straddling the turn of the millennium.
00:00 Aphex Twin – Alberto Balsalm
I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with dance music, often feeling at odds with the limb-flinging utility prominently featured within it. So for me, Aphex Twin in a reflective mood will always trump his more frenetic, gurn-inducing offerings. ‘Alberto Balsalm’ remains one of the most beautiful pieces within his back catalogue, and typically at odds with the quotidian imagery evoked by its title, being named after hair care products (though I’ve only just realised that it’s spelt slightly differently to the brand).
While at sixth form college, I took a trip to the local library and rented ‘I Care Because You Do’. Having no music discovery algorithms at my disposable in 1995, or friends who liked electronic music, my selection criteria was primarily based on the ‘futuristic artist names’ methodology. I’d no idea what an Aphex was, but it sounded like something I might like. Plus I was intrigued by the oil pastel Richard D. James beaming at me, with the scrawled track titles on the back.
On first listening, I was seriously underwhelmed, struggling to see beyond the abrasive beats and lo-fi production of the album. That is, until track ten rolled by, when everything proceeded to fall into place. The beautiful polysynth piano patch wove together plaintive melodies and harmonies, working perfectly alongside the sampled found sound percussion, which set a blueprint for kind of melodic, intricate electronica I would listen to for the next decade.
03:57 Autechre – Eutow
By now I should have noticed a reliable imprint from which to select new music: Warp Records. But although it was released the same year as ‘I Care Because You Do’, I didn’t actually find my way to Autechre’s ‘Tri Repetae’ until a couple of years later. By this time I’d already corrected my aimless career path from academic autopilot, conceding to my love of electronic music, and so had switched to pursue a degree in music technology. If I had any doubts about my decision at the time, Autechre would put them to rest. I remember noticing this curiously plain gold/brown CD on the rack at HMV, just a few sections down from Aphex Twin, my interest piqued by the evocatively-named group.
I was besotted by this album, and can’t help but think of my college flat every time I play it, conjuring memories of sitting there with headphones on, wondering how the hell these guys made their equipment sound like this. It’s difficult to select a single track, as they all have their charms, but I’ve gone with ‘Eutow’ as it’s a good fit for this mix, and one of the more immediate tracks on the album.
08:13 Chris Clark – Diesel Raven
On first hearing Chris Clark’s ‘Clarence Park’ album, I thought he’d done a great job at distilling all the best elements of electronic music into a single release. He’s got a great ear for melody and a unique production style; an all too rare balance of melodic and experimental production.
‘Diesel Raven’ was initially released as a free teaser mp3 ahead of the album (as far as I can remember), and I can recall being immediately sold on those melodies that seemed to constantly skirt dissonance. Following the introduction of some wonderfully crunchy sampled percussion, towards the half-way point the track effortlessly opens out into one of my favourite musical moments, an almost baroque-sounding monophonic melody. It’s one of those melodic lines that manages to sound far more complex than it is, implying chords and counterpoint from the melodic fission (yes, I looked that musical term up!) of a single synth line. Glorious.
10:41 The Orb – Little Fluffy Clouds
This is one of those tracks that doesn’t sound right to me unless it has some DJ patter spilling over the outro, as I had originally taped it off the radio. Unfortunately it was also one of those radio moments where the DJ would blather on about something other than the actual track, so for a while I was clueless as to whom it was by, and which album it taken from. I’ve got fond memories of sitting in the park with my Walkman on, listening to this repeatedly. It must have been around 1995-ish, as I recall being thoroughly bored by the Oasis vs. Blur feud that was inflicted on us by the music press. We had to take fairly long bus journeys to college, so I’d just stick The Orb’s ‘Live ‘93’ or ‘Orbvs Terrarvm’ on and escape the daily routine.
It wasn’t until a few years later that I heard Steve Reich’s ‘Electric Counterpoint’, and immediately noticed Pat Matheny’s guitar lick, as sampled by The Orb. I can’t deny being slightly disappointed on realising that the track wasn’t a fully-formed product of Alex Paterson’s creativity, but I quickly got over it. Now I just admire just how skilfully he managed to weave together such disparate sound sources such as Levar Burton interviewing Rickie Lee Jones, Pat Metheny’s guitar, plus some harmonica taken from an Ennio Morricone film score, into a pop hit.
14:53 Boards of Canada – An Eagle in Your Mind
This track always transports me back to 1999, during a freezing morning, hitching a lift to college with a mate of mine. He’d heard my track ‘Low Grav Freefall’, and suggested I listen to BoC’s ‘Music Has the Right to Children’. Needless to say, I was utterly sold on its blend of austere, melodic synths, painstaking sample treatment, and hypnotising beat work.
As I was so used to listening to electronic music that had sprung from the Anglocentric well of acid techno, ambient and hardcore, BoC were a breath of fresh air. They created an intoxicating cocktail of nostalgia borne of childhood educational programs and documentaries, suffused with hazy synths, which seemed to borrow more from American hip hop and film soundtracks than from UK techno. They added a whole new dimension to Warp’s catalogue, and electronica in general, and will always remain a solid pillar of an influence for me.
21:14 Aphex Twin – At the Heart of It All
This curious track comes from Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Further Down the Spiral’ remix album, and typifies the musical influences I was absorbing during the mid-nineties, as a teenager trying as best I could to straddle metal and electronic music subcultures.
I didn’t realise Aphex had written a track on this album, but as soon as those wheezing drums kicked in (reminiscent of those from ‘Acrid Avid Jam’ from ‘I Care Because You Do’), I had to check the credits. Sure enough, here was Aphex Twin, somehow on a NIN remix album, with a harsh yet sombre offering. I just love those ‘War of the Worlds’ doom horns.
25:41 Nine Inch Nails – A Warm Place
One of the most persistent memories I have of ‘The Downward Spiral’ was just how many plays it took for me to digest and understand it, such was its density and sonic breadth. It was part of a stack of CDs that I’d bought that day, and while I remember being particularly proud of my musical haul, I can’t for the life of me remember what else I bought. From the excellent artwork to the meticulous sound design contained within, this was undoubtedly the work of a focused, driven artist.
Like David Bowie’s ‘Low’ (a clear influence on TDS), the album has a definite trajectory and cohesion which makes cherry-picking individual tracks feel a little destructive. ‘A Warm Place’ has an ‘eye of the storm’ feel to it within the album’s context; a few minutes of solace and reflection before the album’s conclusion.
Musically, like my favourite tracks in general, this track hits a balance of melancholy without being maudlin. It’s almost optimistic. Despite a simple melody and 16th-note bass pulse, the production is richly detailed and full of texture, just like every other track on the album.
28:36 Brian Eno – An Ending (Ascent)
This track contrasts nicely with ‘A Warm Place’, flipping the ratio of melancholy and optimism for four minutes of pure serenity. It’s a classic synth track, and one of the most beautifully uplifting tracks ever written, despite being little more than a simple chord sequence looping for four-odd minutes. It’s no wonder this track gets repeatedly licensed for film and TV in need of an emotional jolt, as this is as pure as it gets.
Eno has an extensive and varied back-catalogue, but his instrumental ambient albums from the early eighties are by far my favourite. The album that this track is taken from, ‘Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks’ plus his ‘Ambient 4: On Land’ album, are musical staples for me.
32:53 Orbital – Dwr Budr
Like Aphex, Autechre and The Orb, I found Orbital by deploying my now highly refined music discovery algorithm: ‘alphabetical proximity to current favourites + futuristic name + cool art’. At the time I think Orbital had also just released their single for ‘The Box’, and had a video on rotation (featuring Tilda Swinton!), ahead of the release of their ‘In Sides’ album, so perhaps that also primed me to take a chance with one of their CDs. On listening to ‘In-Sides’ I immediately knew I’d chosen wisely. This ticked all the musical boxes for me, being more melodic, thoughtful and explorative than the one-note rave or indie that I’d previously listened to.
‘Dwr Budr’ is one of the more mournful tracks from the album, and follows the album’s general theme of environmental awareness (apparently the title was inspired by water pollution, meaning ‘dirty water’ in Welsh). It’s a shining example of Orbital’s ability to treat vocals as malleable raw material, weaving vocal takes into utterly beautiful, nonsensical melodic hooks.
37:41 The Orb – Oxbow Lakes
Another classic Orb track for me, taken from the ‘Orbus Terrarum’ album. This track, along with the sublime ‘Montagne d'Or’, was another college favourite that received endless repeats on the Walkman, catalysing numerous daydreams away from my humdrum distractions.
Listening to this now, it strikes me at just how odd a piece of music this is, starting with those wonderfully dramatic piano chords, before evolving into deep, dubby ambience, everything immersed in a mix of watery delays and cavernous reverb, before finishing with a sparkling jewel of a synth melody (which, with all those filter resonance pops, always remind me of the film ‘Tron’).
44:56 Leftfield – Melt
It’s not often that events pertaining to the royal family result in a broadening of my musical horizons, but that’s what happened during the summer of 1997. During media coverage of Diana Spencer’s fatal car crash, Radio 1 suspended their usual programming, instead opting to run a playlist of downtempo electronica and ambient music. I lapped it up, filling a spare C90 with tunes from Nightmares on Wax, Sabres of Paradise, and most interestingly for me, Leftfield.
I think it was ‘Song of Life’ that I heard initially, but that led me to Leftfield’s excellent debut album, ‘Leftism’. ‘Melt’ is one of many superb downtempo tunes on the album, and seems to comprise of a strata of melodic hooks, layer upon layer, rather than being chord-led. Every melodic element is memorable in its own right, and fits together perfectly with the other elements and samples.
50:01 Kettel – Kroost Kids
As I’ve mentioned, it’s rare for me to find an artist that manages to successfully pull off a balance of production technique and musical articulacy, but Kettel’s certainly one of them. He exudes musicality, and it’s certainly of no surprise to me to see him venture into soundtrack work. A classically-trained pianist, Kettel’s just as comfortable improvising piano pieces as he is producing upbeat, synth-led electronica and ambient tracks.
‘Kroost Kids’ holds back for the first minute, burbling along nicely with Kettel’s characteristic 303-esque lead, before opening the floodgates to a wash of gorgeous plucked melodies and organ sounds. As an unexpected treat, just as the track nears its end, out comes a head-nodding piano coda, effortlessly juggling the track’s main chord sequence with added syncopation.
55:06 Mr. Projectile - Sinking
I’ve been a fan of Mr. Projectile since chancing upon his mp3.com page back in the millennial salad days of online music. Sadly I’ve since lost my copies of his prolific pre-label material, but thankfully there’s plenty of excellent official material available out there, such as this titular album track.
Released towards the tail end of electronica’s heyday, on Miami’s Merck Records, ‘Sinking’ is a beautiful melodic wash of detuned synths, muted synth clusters, and vocal fragments. Simple in musical structure and format, it nonetheless never fails to hypnotise me with that brilliant kick-snare beat pattern. I’ve always loved how he compresses his beats, often folding phased snare reverb into the drum bus to create a swelling vortex that fills the gaps in the beats. This track, along with album sister tracks ‘You Need’ and ‘Love Here’, is essential Mr. Projectile material.