Tuesday, 27 December 2011

The best of 1991 - 20 records to celebrate in stead of Nevermind

While finishing the poststep-piece, I couldn't help but notice – no matter how much I tried to avoid it – the cringeworthy circle jerk going on in pretty much all music media, the celebration of the twenty year anniversary of Nirvarnas Nevermind, presented like the most revolutionary and important record in recent history. The stupidity of most rock based music media – as well as the music coverage in all other media – have always been embarrassing, but not usually to the degree where I not just feel a bit sick, but get really angry. This, however, did the trick. It's not just a matter of Nevermind being unbelievably overrated as a rock record, or that its “revolutionary” effect of restoring rock to its gritty authentic essence was such a forced media construct, dreamed up by a poisonous cocktail of record industry and ageing rock journalists who wanted something like Nirvana to happen; the ultimate amalgam of the most lame rock authenticity clichés - garage/punk “rock out”-energy and scruffy/maladjusted indie songwriting. And it's not that Nevermind as such is a bad record – though I haven't felt compelled to hear it in more than ten years, I guess it was sort of good actually, with catchy songs and kind-of-convincing-teenage-weltschmerz, and I more or less understand why it had such an impact, because much like the much better Radiohead later on, Nevermind was the perfect product to satisfy the endless demand of a specific teenage segment, filling a hole that only this kind of rock music can fill.
In this way, you could definitely argue that the album had a sociological significance, but why music that successfully, yet uninventively and predictably, pander to the unchanging taste of this teen demographic, is somehow the sociological signifier – the zeitgeist – of an era, is beyond me, and partly why it's so annoying that old school rock critics manage to sell this ridiculous myth – that they themselves totally believe – to the world. It's still not the worst part though, because it wouldn't be so bad if there wasn't anything else around, in that case a slightly-better-than-average teen spleen record that happened to get many more people than usual involved could probably be seen as somewhat zeitgeisty, or at least as good a suggestion as whatever else was happening. The thing is: There indeed was, to put it very mildly, some other stuff around at the time. Nevermind came out during the first year of one of the greatest upheavals in music history, and compared to that it was utterly insignificant, musically conservative, uninventive and regressive. Well, it would be in any case, but compared to this incredibly rich musical year, much much much much more so. And the purely musical aspect is what I'm after here.
It's not that I think rave culture (or for that matter hip hop or metal) was more or less sociologically important than grunge, I don't really care and have nothing invested in whether it was so or not, it's that it came up with such unbelievable riches, such endless innovation and astonishingly new and fresh music, that if you're looking back at 1991 and see Nevermind, you're not just missing out, you're simply missing one of the greatest musical revolutions ever, and that in favour of a triviality that just repeats the past. And you're definitely missing the zeitgeist. And it’s that distortion of history that makes me angry, that the greatness of that year has been written completely out of the mainstream media coverage. Which brings us to the point of this piece: Rather than just believing my gut feeling that “rave culture” (in itself a catchall for a lot of different things) was infinitely superior to grunge, I decided to check what records would actually support this feeling. For a starter, I supposed that it would be pretty easy to find at least ten records that were better and/or more significant than Nevermind, and as the candidates quickly sprung up in my mind I decided to see if it wasn’t perhaps possible to find twenty instead. Well, it wasn't hard, and you could certainly find many more, because I've restricted myself to records from the techno/house/rave/electronic-area, and I'm sure hip hop heads would argue that there was a whole heap of revolutionary hip hop records coming out that year as well. I've never been much into hip hop so I wouldn't know, but there seemed to be a huge excitement about the genre back then. Similarly, the early nineties also seemed to be a kind of golden age for death metal, so there's probably some missing from that area as well. Ditto late shoegaze/early post rock stuff I guess.
A restriction to this list is that I'm sticking with single artist/group albums. Techno/rave has always been driven by 12” singles and EPs, but nevertheless there was plenty of incredible albums being made, several of which certainly deserving the kind of 20-year-anniversary-eulogies so ridiculously heaped upon Nevermind. That it's not just about the many groundbreaking electronic singles, and that there's 20 powerful, amazing albums better and/or more significant than Nevermind from 1991, without resorting to compilations, makes the case even clearer. So, here we go, an astonishing cavalcade of greatness – the amount of stellar records surprises even me.

Front 242: Tyranny >For You<Let's start with what could be called an intermediary in the passage from eighties electronic music and the explosively expanding new world of the nineties; a genre simultaneously pushing ahead into and being eclipsed by techno “proper”, namely EBM. Usually, EBM is seen as a late eighties phenomenon, and those years was indeed the genres highest tide, but it's not like it all just disappeared with the nineties and rave culture. Especially the first three years of the nineties were incredibly rich when it comes to EBM, there was still a massive momentum, a lot of the people involved clearly still believed that they were the future, and a lot of the genres greatest records ever came out during those years. Yet, what is really interesting about this EBM phase is that it was also highly involved with the new dance floor oriented sounds, which, after all, took a lot of both inspiration and audience from the older EBM scene. At least in northern Europe, rave culture was in many ways built on the already existing EBM-network, a bit like it was built on the existing hip hop/reggae-culture in Britain. A good example is Tyranny>For You<, by arguably the greatest EBM act ever, which managed to integrate more rave friendly elements in their unique sound. Tracks like “Moldavia” and “Neurobashing” practically disband all conventional song structures in favour of a driving, stomping energy not all that different from the harder techno forms being made by Front 242s fellow Belgians at the same time. The rest is classic Front 242 at their best, where dizzying clockwork contraptions of spliced and microscopically manipulated samples somehow manage to turn into surprisingly catchy songs. Tyranny >For You< is still an impressive demonstration that in 1991, EBM was still a force to be reckoned with, and certainly much more exiting and revolutionary than grunge ever was.

The Overlords: Organic?Going a step further in the EBM-techno-transformation, this one also takes well constructed and catchy song based EBM, and makes it even more rave friendly. The production is clear and cyber-muscular, with emphasis on a heavy, pumping groove, and the sort of melodic, infective pulse-riffs that EBM eventually handed down to trance. The track “Sundown” was a huge, huge single, and probably the snapshot of EBM turning into techno/trance.

Time to Time: Im Wald der TräumeIf The Overlords went further into rave territory than Front 242, Time To Time went all the way. While you can still clearly hear EBM-elements – those pulsing sequencer riffs again – Im Wald der Träume also embraces rave juvenilia to a degree that would make Smart'Es blush. The vocals have been pitched up to a ridiculous helium smurf squeek, the “lyrics” are at best utterly silly, and the melodies could be taken from a childrens TV show. The contrast is made further clear by the cover, at one hand a splash of colourful cartoon images like Hannah Barbera on acid and ecstasy, but at the same time it depicts a group of three young men that could belong to any late eighties group in the intersection of EBM and dark, Depeche Mode-derived synth pop. All in all not a record that had a big impact anywhere, it's definitely the most obscure on this list, but nevertheless it's a fascinating indicator of the massive changes that was going on in electronic music at the time, and as silly and ridiculous as the music is, it also has a twisted inventiveness – sort of a rave Der Plan – that is irresistibly charming and utterly unique.
Pleasure Game: Le Dormeur
The biggest, most overwhelming rave development of 1991 was of course the Belgian hardcore sound, and that sound was largely based on singles. It never managed a successful transformation into album music, and in 1991 few of the leading artists even tried. The best attempt in this respect was Pleasure Games Le Dormeur, named after their massive hit, and managing to keep the quality relatively high throughout. Some tracks were clearly fillers, mostly designed to be atmospheric and experimental intermezzos among all the rave intensity, and they come off as either pretty uninspired or pretty awful, or both. There's still a majority of good stuff though, including some minor-yet-brilliant follow up hits to “Le Dormeur” (“Mystic House”, “Prepare to Energyse”), as well as some awesome lost gems in the same vein (“Gravity Force”, “Professeur Daktylus”), and it's definitely possible to listen to the album as a fully connected whole. Le Dormeur is not a stellar album by any means, but it's arguably the best and most concise single artist summing up of one of the most exciting developments of 1991, and as such a much more invigorating and relevant example of the zeitgeist than any mopey retro rock.

Twin EQ: The Megablast
The best straightforward rave album of 1991 was this forgotten obscurity, loaded with high energy beats, buzzsaw synths and bleepy riffs keeping just the right balance between functional anonymity and catchy melodiousness. German duo Twin EQ worked under many different names, the most successful being Interactive, who had several verging-on-novelty rave hits later on, but this is arguably their greatest moment. None of the tracks could be called classics or have left any permanent mark on techno history, but all the same none of them are weak or compromised, and every one of them delivers just the kind of hyperactive synthetic blast that good rave music should. The Megablast simply works as a compact, tremendous whole, energetic and buzzing all the way through.

Frankfurt Trax volume 2 – The House of TechnoSome might argue that this violates my restriction to single artist albums, as it's obviously a compilation. Well, since everything on it – or at least on the vinyl version which I'm sticking to here – is done by Marc Acardipane, either on his own or in a few collaborations, it’s certainly also very much a single artist effort, very clearly a singular vision, with the “compilation” aspect most of all being a conceptual packaging. In any case it deserves the benefit of a doubt, because probably being the greatest album of 1991, it couldn’t really be left out here. Not much more to add, really, I think I have already said quite enough.

X-101: X-101A short, concise and generally brilliant little LP that is still one of the best things the Underground Resistance collective ever released. Interesting to notice the similarities with the contemporary Belgian/European rave sound on several tracks, as well as the EBM-ish elements, not just in the sound but even more with the cover, which is as archetypical EBM as it gets. I guess it's partly due to Mills' industrial roots (ie Final Cut), but it's also a great indication that the different pre-histories of techno aren't as disparate as usually assumed.

Air Liquide: Neue Frankfurter Elektronik-SchulePackaged and probably sold as an EP, and with an unclear release date that sometimes places it in 1992 (at discogs at least, but pretty much all other evidence say 1991), this is not the most obvious inclusion, but with a playing time of forty minutes (ten more than X-101) and one of the most ahead-of-its-time sounds of all the records in this list, it really ought to be here. Air Liquide would later be one of the main players on the cologne scene – also including Mike Ink/Wolgang Voigt and eventually one of the definitive building blocks in the current minimal techno sound – but here they've already created their own unique style, a reinvention of acid and cosmic krauttronica as haunting free form machine music, achingly beautiful and foreboding on tracks like “Sun Progress” and “Coffeine”.

Biosphere: MicrogravityThis is usually considered one of the definitive records of the early “ambient techno” boom, though it's not really ambient in the conventional sense, or at least only on a few tracks. Not that it's easy to say what it is then, though. It's clearly a kind of dark and atmospheric techno, but it doesn't sound like any of the other styles around at this time (bleep, rave, proto-hardcore, proto-trance, detroit etc.), and hardly like anything since. There's a connection to the kind of bleak, gloomy and largely industrial/dark ambient derived minimalism that would later sort of run parallel to the actual minimal techno scene (Pan Sonic, Psychick Warriors Ov Gaia, Pressure of Speech etc.), but all the same, Biospheres sense of melody and structure is so unique here that it's probably more appropriate to classify him as a not directly related predecessor rather than as an actual ancestor. Microgravity had a huge impact, but it’s so oblique and subtle in what makes it special, that no one has fully been able to emulate it.

The Orb: Adventures Beyond the UltraworldSome might find this two hour monster opus too much, but it's still one of the most groundbreaking chill out records of all time, still part of the foundation of much music being made today. Personally, I still think most of it is pretty great, there might be early signs of the cheap ironic zaniness that would eventually become an annoying part of the Orb brand, and a lot of the tricks that they would later repeat over and over again are also present, and consequentially a bit damaged by reverse association, but there's also a freshness and a sense of breathless, un-ironic wonder that still makes huge parts of it seem magically unreal and beautiful all these years later.

Ultramarine: Every Man and Woman is a StarIf The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld seems a bit too obvious and omnipresent, this have long been the "cool" alternative choice as greatest chill out album of 1991. Actually, it's not all that chilled, the beats are often extremely groovy and energetic, but it's a catchy and enjoyable album that – a bit like Biospheres Microgravity – was probably a bit too unique in its style for others to follow it. If anything, it seems almost like an atmospheric, laid back and new age “spiritual” forbearer of big beat.

Future Sound of London: AcceleratorDespite FSOLs later reputation as abstract ambient experimenters par excellence – something that made them the big bad pseudo proggers in Energy Flash – their first album wasn't all that abstract, and not particular ambient either. Rather, it was a pretty straightforward collection of tracks existing somewhere in between rave viscerality and introverted “softcore” atmospherics, often reminiscent of the 808 State style of electronic exotica. However, it's never quite the one or the other, and Accelerators greatness is exactly that it manages to be both without sounding like a forced or clumsy pairing of opposites. One of the greatest and most convincing examples that electronic dance music can be fully transformed into softer, mood based “album music” without losing its edge one bit. I've never personally thought that the later FSOL efforts were bad, and certainly not as bad as they're said to be in Energy Flash, but Accelerator remains my favourite FSOL album by far; inventive, well-proportioned and endlessly listenable.

808 State: Ex:elIf anyone can be called pioneers of the techno album it's 808 State, but after some of the genres greatest LPs ever – Newbuild and Ninety – by 1991 they were beginning to lose it just slightly. Ex:el was a bit of a mess, trying to be all over the map, while simultaneously going further into the guest vocalist trap that they just managed to keep stomachable on Ninety. Arguably, the vocal styling of Björk is so sound-in-itself oriented that it works brilliantly with atmospheric electronica, but one track would be enough, and Bernard Sumners “Spanish Heart” is pretty lame. Still, what makes Ex:el great, and makes it belong here, is that it manages to be surprisingly listenable despite all these problems. It's too long, slightly messy and uneven, but somehow it all comes together as a coherent – if not exactly seamless – whole, that sort of embody the explosive, unmanageable state of the electronic scene at the time. None of the music on Ex:el is quite the “real thing”, ie proper representatives of the many different genres and fractions spreading at hyperspeed in 1991, but rather artificial simulacra thereof – when not simply artificial creations without any obvious outside inspiration – and deeply fascinating and odd exactly because of it.

Bomb the Bass: Unknown TerritoryThe guest vocals have usually been an even greater problem with Bomb the Bass than with 808 State, though clearly a similar problem: They seem unnecessary, tacked on and overshadowing the real interesting things happening in the track constructions. Unknown Territory, though, is the one time where Tim Simenon makes it all balance, partly because there's not that many guests on it, partly because the used vocalists have so little personality, and are used in such a way, that they mostly seem like anonymous sound sources – they could just as well have been samples, and the production is taking the lead throughout. Preempting both trip hop and big beat, continuously inventive and catchy, and without a single dull track (even the torch songs – something I normally loathe – somehow inexplicably works), Unknown Territory is one of the greatest and most prophetic albums of 1991, and arguably the crowning achievement of the DJ/producer-as-star movement that came out of the late eighties British acid/hip house boom.

Shut Up and Dance: Dance Before the Police Come!The closest we get to hip hop in this list, considering that SUAD saw themselves as fast hip hop rather than techno/rave. That said, I've never cared much for the rap on it, it's the breakbeat-and-samples rave aspect that truly makes it an interesting and in many was groundbreaking record. In a lot of ways it’s patchy and perhaps one of the most dated of the records here, but there's no denying that it represents an important step in the breakbeat development, and definitely a much bigger musical leap – as well as one of much bigger subsequent innovative impact – than anything Nirvarna ever did.

The Ragga Twins: Reggae Owes Me MoneyA step closer to true proto jungle, mostly due to the fusing of ragga vocals and breakbeats in just the way that would eventually become the very definition of the most popular, ragga-dominated end of jungle. As with Shut Up and Dance, I prefer the instrumental side of The Ragga Twins, though I'm sure the charm and character of the vocals is a huge part of why this record is held in such high esteem by most hardcore/breakbeat/jungle scholars. Anyway, that it's some sort of a musical milestone is pretty undeniable.

4 Hero: In Rough TerritoryAs for ahead-of-its-time break beat, no one were probably further ahead in 1991 than 4 Hero. Their cold, sharp and basically ragga-free approach made it proto drum'n'bass rather than proto jungle (if that distinction makes any sense), and you'll be hard pressed to find anyone else working so consequently with the breakbeats-and-bass template this early, even considering 12” releases. In Rough Territory has its weaknesses – it’s definitely too long and samey, and there's still a slightly antiquated quality to some of the tracks, with their basis in – interestingly enough – bleep'n'bass still clearly audible, making it as much a highly alternative take on the bleep aesthetic as the creation of drum'n'bass ex nihilo. Still, the ground breaking inventiveness of the sample splicing and dicing, the sheer propulsive force and the overall quality of the best tracks, gives the whole a future shock impact that still seem powerful today, and which certainly must have been amazing at the time, and more than enough to render its overall problems as an album (which only seem really problematic retrospectively) irrelevant.

LFO: FrequenciesIt's sobering to consider that while 4 Hero were deliberately moving away from bleep and already building a new future, bleep itself was still just about a year old, and and only then reaching its apex. That's how fast things were moving. The definitive bleep album, and as such arguably the crowning achievement of the style, was of course LFOs Frequencies, which is the canonised techno album of 1991 if there is one. The status is well deserved, LFO takes the bleep aesthetic and invents a whole new language with it, using the potential to its fullest and twisting it into all sorts of weird and hitherto unimagined shapes – and much like with Biosphere, the results are mostly so idiosyncratic and self contained that the album seemed to exhaust this specific direction completely, rather than opening up for possible descendants – trying to emulate Frequencies seems both impossible and pointless.

Orbital: OrbitalWith one foot in the bleep camp and one in their very own brilliant future – simultaneously proto trance, chilled “listening techno” and experimental electronica – I'd dare say that Orbitals “green album” is even better than Frequencies at expanding the possibilities of the bleep scene, even if they never fully seemed a part of it. The album is arguably too long – a problem Orbital continued to struggle with on many subsequent albums – but the quality is nevertheless extremely high (if anything, it’s the incredibly coherency of it that sort of makes it a bit exhaustive in the long run), and it's especially fascinating that the greatest tracks are not just the established singles (“Chime”, “Belfast”, “Speed Freak” - great as they might be), but rather less known “fillers” like “The Moebius”, “Macro Head” and “Steel Cube Idolatry”, being just as creative with the bleep formula as anything on Frequencies. Too long or not, except for Frankfurt Trax 2 there's probably no other album of 1991 that still sounds so fresh – and so timelessly original – as Orbitals debut.

Plaid: Mbuki MvukiPredating their albums with The Black Dog, this is the very first long player from anyone belonging to what would eventually be Warp-based British IDM milieu (Aphex, Autechre, µ-ziq, Luke Vibert etc.), and its mythological status have been pumped up by the fact that it was practically unavailable for a long time. With Warps Trainer-compilation of early and/or unreleased Plaid material, it was finally possible to judge it, and it turned out to be... well, not quite as incredible as it had been claimed to be. Well, how could it ever? Basically, Mbuki Mvuki is a bit uneven, with several tracks coming off as too effortless breakbeat+”exotic sample” amalgams (“Slice of Cheese”, “Summit”, “Scoobs in Colombia”), not really going anywhere. However, that doesn't change the fact that it also contained some of the first fully formed examples of what would eventually become Plaids (and to some degree also The Black Dogs) trademark sound, those weirdly angular melodies and rubbery, flexible rhythms that still sounds absolutely unique and futuristic, even today. And even if there's a few fillers, Mbuki Mvuki works convincingly as a whole, and has just the right, refreshing length – something later Plaid and Black Dog albums never quite got right.
Appendix A: Compilations
With so much amazing music being released only as singles, the overwhelming impact being made by the rave scene in 1991 is not really clear from just single artist albums. However, there was simply so much great stuff around that it’s possible to find a bunch of very different compilations that all work as superb albums on their own. This small top five could just as well have been part of any “best of 1991” list.

Techno TraxThe first in a series of compilations that would eventually get more and more dominated by watered down dance hits and cheap novelty tracks, but which nevertheless began pretty great, with the first one especially being a bit of a treasure trove, full of lost gems mostly from the German and Italian part of the continental hardcore/rave scene. The emphasis here is on more electro-tinged tracks (with very clear elements of both EBM and italo disco), rather than the more house /hip hop based sound of the British/Belgian axis, and there's simply so much good stuff to be excavated in this department – no techno collection should be without treasures like Recall IVs “Contrast”, Klangwerks “Die Kybernauten” or Cybex Factors “Die Schöpfung”. Techno Traxis invaluable in any survey of the 1991 techno scene.

XL-recordings: The Second Chapter - Hardcore European Dance MusicProbably the most definitive collection of 1991 rave hits you’ll ever find – I’d say at least 75% is stone cold classics (T99, The Prodigy, Holy Noise, Cubic 22 etc. etc.) while the rest are just ad brilliant if not quite as well known. Absolutely essential starting point to get what this was all about.

Reactivate volume #1 – The Belgian Techno AnthemsThe ideal companion to The Second Chapter, in that except for T99s “Anasthasia” (the only track appearing twice in this list) and Beltrams “Energy Flash”, this is all lesser known, not-quite-hits that brilliantly showcases the slightly more tracky side of the Belgian scene. You’ll not find a better or more concise LP of Belgian techno (even if several of the tracks aren’t really Belgian).

Champion Sound – The best of Kickin Records Volume OneIn 1991 Kickin was one of the most successful labels in the British breakbeat scene, specialising in a both melodic and bombastic sound that fused Belgian brutalism with the prevailing British b-boys-on-hyperspeed sound. This compilation sums it all up in one definitive package, containing practically all their great early singles.

Technozone: Central-EuropeThe best indication of just how out of control the techno/rave scene was by 1991, is the fact that you’ll find compilations like this, full of practically unknown tracks that are clearly pumped out very fast to meet the demand, but rather than being weak and derivative, pretty much everyone is a winner. Substantiates why techno – and not grunge – ruled the world in 1991, and blasted open the gates to the future.
Appendix BA last couple of albums ought to be mentioned. First of all, KLFs White Room certainly had a huge impact in 1991, and was somehow part of dance cultures taking over of the world. Only a shame it was so crappy. Secondly, Kraftwerk released The Mix after five years of silence. Now, consisting entirely of remixed old tracks, it wouldn’t really fit the original top 20 list, after all, that list was meant to represent the future that erupted in 1991, not the past, but there’s definitely a massive significance to The Mix. By 1991, Kraftwerk had finally proven beyond all doubt that they had won. The unfolding future was their spawn. And with The Mix, they sort of acknowledged this. The album should really have been the closing of the doors to the past, but sadly, grunge simultaneously reopened them and insisted that it was better to live with rock regression than with electronic progression.