Category: Deep house

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’.

Come with me to the land of ladies

I think I first encountered the Black Science Orchestra in 1994, when I picked up a copy of The Altered States EP in a Camden basement which was (I think) called Rockit Records, a few doors down from Tusk, where I used to get my hair cut. That’s the 12” that includes Philadelphia and New Jersey Deep, which reworked components of Funkanova’s Wood, Brass And Steel into a new dancefloor classic. I remember someone behind the counter was playing a bootleg of the Louie Vega remix of Mondo Grosso’s Souffles H, and I also bought that unmissably wonderful jazz/house crossover and sat back while it didn’t get a full release for another year.

Ashley Beedle launched the Black Science Orchestra in 1992, with Where Were You?, which helped launch the London-based Junior Boys’ Own imprint on the world stage by giving New York house DJs new music to play carved out of their own disco heritage. There’s a nice YouTube interview with label founders Terry Farley and Steve Hall that fills in more of the background, filmed to mark Defected’s reissue of the catalogue on digital.

Twenty-one years on and the track still sounds fantastic, the intensity gradually building over the warm and fuzzy bassline, taking the best part of four minutes to delay the sweet satisfaction of the soaring Sigma Sound string figure that is the most precious of all the stones mined from sparkling surface of The Trammps’ 1977 New York blackout track, The Night The Lights Went Out.

Ashley’s original partners had been John Howard and Rob Mello (Rob went on to join the sample-grooving Disco Elements team, whose work has not perhaps lasted so well). The Altered States EP debuted the classic line-up, with Ashley joined by DJ/producer Marc Woolford and keyboards player Uschi Classen, which also featured on the 1996 LP Walter’s Room (named in memory of gay New York DJ and production maverick Walter Gibbons). By the time Ashley revived the project in 1999 on Afro Art Records, the label he himself had founded three years earlier, the credits don’t name-check Uschi any more.

The Ladyland EP dates from this final phase, which was to finish in 2002 with the magnificent Headspace Lullaby, marking the end of the project with a track that paradoxically sounds like nothing else that had come over the decade before. I stumbled across the 12” in the Oxford Street Virgin Megastore (retail space now occupied by Primark, which tells its own story about the struggles of the old-school music industry). Had I not been in some way always on the lookout for a Black Science Orchestra record at the time, it might have been easy to miss in the poorly-organised vinyl racks: its promo-style plain white paper sleeve and minimal stickered label (‘The Black Science Orchestra/“Ladyland” EP/With love’) didn’t even include track titles.

The major sample resource is a Brothers Johnson track (Land Of Ladies) from their Quincy Jones-produced debut LP, Look Out For Number One. The A-side is the peak-time people-pleasing version, with its three-note musical hook repeatedly returning until it reaches its brass-backed climax. The first track on the B-side is effectively the dub: considerably sparer, and more or less without vocals, it chugs along to a deeper bassline, accompanied by a guitar riff with a dying fall.

But it’s side two, track two that got away until I started digitising. The pulse has dropped from around 124 to 111 beats per minute, much closer to the original, and the wandering synth lines mirror the source’s contributions from Don Lewis, whom the (very ’70s) credits list as using the Armand Pascettas Polyphonic Synthesized Keyboard System. The whole thing slow-burns with a new intensity, as a new female vocal sample (‘Don’t make me wait’) floats separately through the mix before blending into the main vocal hook. Everything now seems to work towards making something all the more compelling for being a little less obvious. Travelling to the land of ladies has rarely felt more irresistible.

Music is the beacon back to dry land

The radio edit of Ananda Project’s Cascades Of Colour on the double-pack from 2000 is a little four-minute burst of magnificence that is somewhat overshadowed by Joe Claussell’s 10-minute mix that is programmed before it. In fact, back in the day, I was so much in thrall to the sweetly melancholy keyboards and chattering percussion of the Sacred Rhythm version that I didn’t give any of the other mixes much of a chance. Plasmic Honey’s hard house take still doesn’t do anything for me, but Ben Watt’s versions are very listenable, even if his signature sound was still a work in progress at the time; and if you want a thumpingly anthemic version of pretty much anything, then Danny Tenaglia (who re-edits Rui Da Silva’s ‘saffron’ mix on the double-pack) is always your man.

Taking its name from a Sanskrit word for ‘bliss’, the Ananda Project is one of several studio aliases of Atlanta, Georgia, producer Chris Brann (who has also created wonderful work as P’taah and scored his first global house hit with King Of My Castle as the Wamdue Project). He is by no means not the only house-based producer to draw inspiration from beyond the dancefloor, but he has an unusually broad range of influences, from Kate Bush to Keith Jarrett, Flora Purim to Prefab Sprout, Arvo Pårt to Trevor Horn.

The Cascades Of Colour EP was the first Ananda Project release in 1998, although I myself missed it at the time (the double-pack of two years later was when I caught up, and I’ve been a devotee ever since). Allowing the graceful five-note piano figure of the title track to materialise out of birdsong was an audacious opening even in the goatee-stroking era of late ’90s deep house, and that full-length version of Chris Brann’s own ‘Wamdue Black’ mix has a wistful beauty all of its own (on the Night Blossom compilation of mixes of material from the more recent Fire Flower album, the man himself uses it to close out his DJ mix on the bonus disc).

But now that I’ve got round to listening to the originally overlooked (by me at least) radio edit, I think it might be even more to the point. (As far as I can hear, the edit doesn’t dispose of any musical content, it simply gets the track underway more speedily and truncates the meditative looping central section.) Like the sunrise and sunset of Gaelle Adisson’s lyrics, it comes and goes too quickly, for sure. But there’s something painfully right about that for a song that seems to be about the futility of attempting to hold on to what are fleeting moments (‘Cascades of colour slip right through your hands/Your castles in the clouds turn back into sand’). Less, it turns out in this case, really is more.