Metro Area: Let’s get elliptical

When New York house duo Metro Area dropped their fourth EP in 2001, it was lead cut Miura that caught everyone’s attention. Spare almost to the point of extinction, it sounded as remotely exotic to London ears as the Japanese peninsula (I’m guessing) it took its name from. And that wasn’t the only aspect of its sound that reflected the land of the rising sun – its musical gestures were as restrained as actors in a Noh play, its compositional elements almost as restrictive as the rules governing a haiku.

While that ‘scrupulous meanness’ was an extension of the principles that guided the first three Metro Area EPs, the record label contained a visual clue that MA4 marked some sort of departure or refinement. The design reproduced the house style Morgan Geist and Darshan Jesrani had used since their first EP in 1999 – a coloured circle with a contrasting segment (plus a radial line in the same colour). But instead of pink/lime green (MA1), blue and bright yellow (MA2) or dark purple and orange (MA3), MA4 is a forbiddingly austere black/grey combination that complements the minimalist palette of the mixing desk.

Miura’s verse is made up of a bassnote pulse, handclaps, a synth wash and drone and a tiny two-note repeated figure that sounds like it can’t find its way back to the ’80s computer game it belongs to. After more than two and a half minutes of this, the chorus seems awash with incident by comparison: the bass climbs into something like a riff accompanied by a moody vocal wail, while a tiny string figure decorates just a little bit of the space around it, sounding like a sample that has leached onto the master from the studio next door but is in fact played live by the Kelley Polar Quartet.

At a time when the majority of deep house dancefloors were resonating to richly melodic and rhythmically busy productions from the likes of Chris Brann (Ananda Project), New Jersey duo Blaze, Joe Claussell and a pre-Berlin Jerome Sydenham, Frankfurt-based collective Needs, Tokyo DJ/producer Jazztronik (I’ll stop now), Miura became a (perhaps) unlikely hit. It broke out across the genre silos occupied by the majority of DJs and their followers, cropped up on numerous compilations and ultimately went on to secure the tag of best track of the decade in a 2010 poll for electronic music portal Resident Advisor. Not that this  sudden mainstreaming of moodiness gave the tune’s creators any sort of uncomplicated thrill. ‘Our tracks would end up on the Cocktail Songs 97 compilation or something on that because people thought it was dark and sexy, and that made us want to puke,’ Geist told Juno Plus in 2010.

The first track on the flipside is the one I never paid enough attention to until I started digitising all my vinyl, a tune that was in fact left off the US edition of the duo’s self-titled debut album when it appeared in 2002 (although it made it onto the European version). Like virtually everything else by Metro Area, Let’s Get … (what? Lost? Physical? Serious?) reeks of restraint but still adheres to traditional song form (‘Half the reason we started Metro Area was because we were sick of house and techno that was loopy and predictable,’ Geist says in the Juno Plus interview, a feature apparently intended to promote the duo’s second album, which nine years on from the first remains as elusive as a successor to The Catcher In The Rye.)

However, if it feels entirely different from the lead cut that precedes it, perhaps that’s because it more obviously references the kind of post-disco boogie that haunts so much Metro Area (all but five of the 23 tracks they stitched together for their Fabric 43 mix originate from the first half of the ’80s). So there is a bubbling bassline that occasionally adds little twists and twirls in the spaces available, prominent finger-snaps on the offbeats, the occasional cowbell, the odd ray gun synth setting and a little Nile Rodgers-ish guitar. So far, so retro.

But Let’s Get … is not some slick, big-eared pastiche. That much is clear from the opening, which introduces a crucial rising and falling melodic figure doubled on piano and glockenspiel – an offbeat combination that I can’t remember hearing on anything originally recorded in the first half of the Thatcher/Reagan decade, or anything referencing it later. (Anyone?) And there’s something very particular about that combination of the uncannily familiar and the oddly innovative that always combines to produce the trademark Metro Area sound.

After listening to Let’s Get … dozens of times while writing this, I’m still in thrall to its lean and hungry melancholy. It’s never going to get dropped in some peak-time main room 2am set, and all the more beguiling for that. Having scratched my head about any number of contending words and phrases to complete the title, I’ve become more and more convinced that the ellipsis is entirely functional (the dictionary on my laptop defines those dots as ‘the omission from speech or writing of a word or words that are superfluous’, and that seems very Metro Area). But there is one omission of my own that I must fill in before I close … by crediting the joke in the title of this piece to my boyfriend Daniel, which probably means the post should appear under the tagline ‘What I’m learning by digitising other people’s gags’.


One comment

  1. Daniel

    I’ve just listened to this track through headphones, for the very first time, while simultaneously reading what you’ve written. I liked the experience lots.

    What follows is a bit of a tangent, but STILL…

    Kenneth Halliwell: I just want to go to the awards! I could! Look, “Joe Orton and guest.” I’d behave. I wouldn’t say a word, I promise.
    Joe Orton: No.
    Kenneth Halliwell: Why?
    Joe Orton: Because it’s for me. I wrote it.
    Kenneth Halliwell: I gave you the title.
    Joe Orton: Okay, so when they have awards for titles, you can go to that.

    Looking forward to the next post. xxx

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