Essential Listening: The Basic Channel EPs

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So, I’ve been binging on Basic Channel stuff for the last month. And yeah, at some point, a renaissance of material this good is inevitable. So a better question is this – how did I get here?

Well, the seed of intrigue was initially planted by dissecting the manic mantra found in ‘Losing My Edge’ by LCD Soundsystem. James Murphy tritely quotes the musical knowledge your insufferably boing crate digging dilettante must possess to attain acceptance within that milieu of inverted snobbery.

And yeah taking a mental list of all the bands mentioned in ‘Losing My Edge’ for future reference can and should be taken as damning evidence that I’m one of those people. In my defence I was well aware of Basic Channel, yet never had the inclination to try it at that time. Perhaps I’d already recognised that Murphy’s acerbic take on trends was also a withering self-critique of the inherent cynicism that invariably builds musical taste, and I was looking to avoid such a process. Maybe I’m giving myself too much credit and I just wasn’t that self-aware – that’s probably it: I had (have?) no bloody clue about anything.

The only truth to be gleaned from this is that my musical tastes were much narrower ten years ago than they are today, due to being utterly content by what I was listening to at the time. Today I simply couldn’t tell you who and what at gunpoint. Much of it I’ve conveniently forgotten, likely because it was completely forgettable.

Much as we try to avoid it, we’re all subject to the grapple of fashions and trends, even in their rejection we are inversely enslaved by them. To use an example of it being taken to an extreme, the excellent Luke Haines implies here that Alan Vega’s a bit of a chancer, but, like James Murphy and the hypsters, I quite like Suicide’s stuff. So who to agree with? The answer, as Murphy, in a roundabout way, suggests, is neither. You have to make your own mind up, as Haines certainly has, and, to be fair to him, always has.

Not helping matters is a school of thought – an inherent cultural consensus, almost – that your taste contracts as you get older. What utter twaddle. In most cases the older you get the more experimental you become – the auteur that is Scott Walker, anyone? You get tired of the generic Indie guitar or club music you liked at seventeen and you are always embarrassed by the lingering memory that in no way were you once coerced into listening to utter shite, such as ‘The Key, The Secret’ by Urban Cookie Collective.

So eventually, provided a certain level of devotion to the form, we’re all pushed to seek sophistication in our chosen artistic mediums and genres, and that’s what Basic Channel offers for proponents of house and club music. However, my first concerted dalliance with their material was the Round One to Round Five compilation. It makes sense in retrospect, as compared with the Basic Channel EPs it’s more accessible, sharing many of the axiomatic attributes of the painfully average Ibiza dredge that I was comfortable with at that time; there’s pleasantness to be derived from hearing crisp vocals over a delineated house build, and both are prevalent on ‘I’m Your Brother’ and ‘New Day’. Sandwiched in-between those two is ‘Acting Crazy’ which introduced me to dubbed electro & techno, a trite description but an effective one. The distortion and hazy atmospherics are introduced, surrounding a delivery reminiscent of Horace Andy’s on ‘Spying Glass’, while the reverb and profuse layering is subtle enough to feint your attention away from the drop in BPM. Crucially residual elements of mainstream club music remain to prevent it from sounding like a departure. Acting Crazy’s strength is its versatility – it suits small dark rooms on the comedown, or as a change of pace in a DJ’s set playlist.

I’m glad that I found the Round One to Round Five comp first, as it bridged me to the whole Basic Channel catalogue, and you know how that goes – that one of theirs was good, so I’ll try this one, and you go from there. That next one being the more sophisticated brother to ‘I’m Your Brother’ – ‘Dub I’. ‘Dub I’ is the finest of all the Basic Channel releases. So finding the best first and then traversing the rest of the catalogue must’ve been a disappointment, as surely it meant it was all downhill from there, right? We know it tends not to work that way. First impressions always last, they resonate the most, and what ‘Dub I’ did was raise the bar. With that context established the rest of the catalogue simply confirmed that I’d found a style of contemporary electronic music more engrossing and interesting than its progenitor or peer – depending on who you ask.

“Quadrant” encompasses every element that makes Basic Channel so appealing – starting with the length of both tracks. Most of their offerings are at least six minutes, allowing the narrative of each time to develop intuitively. Still, a twenty minute offering can seem excessive, and in the wrong conditions frivolous and self-indulgent improv kitsch. ‘Dub I’ avoids such pitfalls, there’s a distant pulsation that slowly builds to mimic its infectious heartbeat, its central billing caresses your ear. It’s wisely allowed to own the stage for twenty seconds before a prism of pulsating metallic reflections arrive in sequence, which momentarily die back to return later, allowing the new layers, genealogic with house music, to arrive, with the subdued but still discernible vocal intermittently arriving amidst it all. It meshes better than the auld Velcro.

‘Dub II’ is a more fractious affair, its glitches and twitches are abrasive pulsations, working to contain its melodic trance rather than embolden it. That central crux remains, and cannot be avoided. As you work your way through all the EPs you soon find out that’s the thematic stratagem which emerges on and defines each EP – each track is a variation of a specific dub beat, with each EP acting as a specific examination of the versatility of dub, and that it can be successfully intertwined with all the sub genres of electronic music; house, tech house, techno, etc, even ambient. Most importantly of all it proves that dub and base can sound diverse. That the genres examined are transposable and malleable in themselves tells us that all music is derivative no matter how minute the lift or disparate it eventually becomes from the original copy. Mark Ernestus and Moritz von Oswald leave more dedicated and extensive explorations of genre to their other pseudonyms. For instance, the releases under the Maurizio moniker retain a minimalist approach to Techno, revealing a sound closer to the original dub sampling and construct.

It’s important to acknowledge that the term dub techno, or dub electro, is used for descriptive purposes only. Associating it with ganja hazed dub offerings such as Zap Pow, is silly. If a structural comparison is to be made, ‘Octaedre’, and in particular ‘Octagon’, come closest, both tracks emphasize a disparity in pace between layers, the main beat remains stable, and it’s the dub that gathers pace and elongates as the track goes on. A better, though still tenuous connection can be made between isolating the dub from either of the tracks on ‘Octagon/Octaedre’ with the one used on ‘Ngunyata Dance Remix’, a solo release by Mark Ernestus, here the dub layer is a sinister rendition of a sped up Upsetters release, this from Augustus Pablo or the African roots ‘Jubilation Dub by’ Joe Gibbs, but unquestionably there are other better examples you can apply that I haven’t thought of.

Even so, these bases and inflections are at best loose imitations or distant affectations, techno soundsystemese if you please. A better way of describing it would be sampling, there’s a clear correlation between the worsening effect on the Radiance EP’s tracks and the instrumental version of Johnny Clarke’s ‘Play Fool Get Wise’. These similarities are drowned into obscurity and secondary status due to the increased BPM, electronic toning, and the use of overdubbing or beat crowding. On ‘Radiance I’ the deep plunging reverb is counterpointed by a series of sharp pulsations, a mild synth then periodically crescendos to a shimmering drone, bringing it together to create a rhythmically hallucinogenic effect.

‘Radiance III’ is a sparse monotonous distorted pastiche of its sibling ‘Radiance I’, with throbbing beats that threaten to break through its surface periodically. These ultimately assume your attention by the middle of the track, before the frequency of the overdubs increase, fusing the disparate elements together at the eight minute mark, allowing the central dub, no longer isolated, to feel fully complimented. I find this track to be indicative of how listening to music closely, rather than blithely, can alter its interpretation, and it’s one of the best functions the Basic Channel releases provide.

There’s less interpretation required on both the Phylyps titled EPs, which focus on a techno analysis. On ‘Phylyps Trak II/I’ the dub retains its usual steady base, with the BPM cranked up. The techno standard marries with the dub beats to accentuate their depth. On ‘Phylyps Trak II’ this meshes to better effect, the techno standard leads in, but the dub is a stifled, cut off generic soundsystem effect. To compensate, each replay increasingly dribbles off into a reverb. ‘Phylyps Trak’ is the most verbose offering, while on ‘Phylyps Base’ the pace and timing are retained but the severity of the overlapping is toned down.

If minimalism’s your thing it’s to be found on ‘Lyot rmx’ where the dub beat is only subtly interrupted by other restrained orchestrations and embellishments. A temperate synth rises, occasionally drawing attention away from the record’s static, which, whether strategically or inadvertently placed, works. The overall effect is a droning ambiance that’s more efficient at engrossing you into a temporary siege of forgetfulness than most dedicated ambient offerings.

“Q1.1” offers clubbish material. ‘Q1.1.1’ & ‘Q1.1.3’ are straight-up house bangers. The dub effect on both is accelerated to imitate the conventional beat and overarching House aesthetic, complimented by a standard piano sample, with a smidge of rave sonics. The twist here is it’s the Piano lick that reverbs, not the dub. On Q1.1.2 the House veneer is eschewed for a hybrid of rave glitches and techno.

“Q-Loop” arrived twenty years after the last Basic Channel release, for shame. That it fits seamlessly alongside the rest of the Basic Channel catalogue, despite the twenty year gap, poses a larger question. Has techno, dub and electronic music in general truly evolved in twenty years? Can it? Or are the Basic Channel guys still the best of their niche? If this is as good as it gets, perhaps it shouldn’t change? ‘Q-Loop’ offers little in the way of clarity to any of these questions, but then why would what it is essentially a thirteen minute long locked beat of furious dub clashing and overlapping? Conceptually, it shouldn’t work, nor should mixing and sampling dub, tweaking it to suit the precept genres of electronic music, but in the case of ‘Q-Loop’ the result is highly addictive.

And I don’t think I’m the only addict either, the Basic Channel fellas have a lot to answer for. Not only has it broadened the palate of second rate fanatics like me, but their output has been an essential part in the record collection of every relevant electronic musician of the last twenty years. Not only do you hear its influence in invigorating contemporary offerings, such as this, this and this, but by its very virtue Basic Channel unashamedly make sure you’ll also hear what influenced them.

About Wichita Lineman Was A Song I Once Heard

Wichita Lineman Was A Song I Once Heard. 'Mediocre blogger and a piously boring and unfunny writer'. Enthusiastic purveyor of the KLF sheep.
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