Needs present Laurentius – Reminiscence

In an attempt to get this blog back into gear, let’s go back to 2002 for a superb slab of premier league deep house from Lars Bartkuhn for Anthony Nicholson’s Clairaudience label.

By the time this was released the Frankfurt producer had already been making waves with the Needs crew, honing a brand of sumptuously produced and lavishly musical house that could go toe to toe with any of the US producers who inspired him. And on this cut, stretching out over nine glorious minutes, he goes the full late-period Ron Trent, building intricate, Brazilian-influenced drums under an anthemic piano chord sequence and going to town with percussion, effects, organs and synths.

There’s a touch of melancholy to the chords, with a properly jazz-influenced harmonic structure –  there are no run-of-the-mill minor sevenths here – and while it certainly noodles a bit, it still bangs. Proper big-system business. And it’s good to see Lars is still coming up with the goods, with a cracking EP on Neroli released at the tail end of last year.

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Pod – Northern Lights

Back to ’92 for an absolute peach by Kenny Larkin, from the Vanguard EP on Belgium’s Buzz label, who also released the seminal Virtualsex compilation. It’s a strong record all-round – the title track is a beauty too – but Northern Lights really steals the show for me, and it’s a reminder that Larkin really deserves to be held up alongside Carl Craig as one of the best – maybe even the best? – of the second-wave Detroit producers.

Sitting at the deeper end of the era’s techno spectrum, the broken rhythms, interlocking melodies and soft chords are like a warm bath – and it’s not a million miles away from the vibe of another all-time favourite of mine from the same year, Black Dog Productions’ Otaku (which surely deserves a blog entry of its own one day…)

Although the original Buzz pressing isn’t cheap these days, four of the seven tracks were repressed by Rush Hour in 2005, so it’s easy enough to get hold of if you’re new to its charms.

Headspace & Emoticon Retrospective

So here’s something I’ve been meaning to do for a long time – a mix of tracks on Headspace and Emoticon, the labels I ran with Raeph Powell from 1996-2006. Since the whole operation kind of predates the internet as we now know it – none of this stuff is available digitally, and probably never will be – I also wanted to write a little bit to document the story of the labels, nearly a decade on from the final release.

Headspace began when I was still at school, as a result of two key friendships – with Raeph, who worked in Catapult Records, the main independent dance music shop in my home town of Cardiff; and Simon Walley, aka CiM, who I met online in the very early days of email-based electronic music communities – the IDM and 313 mailing lists hosted by Hyperreal.

Simon was making some amazing tracks, using little more than tracker software on his Amiga, which he was sending to me and Raeph on cassette. I was making my own house stuff on an Atari with an Akai sampler, DJing as much as I could and generally obsessed with music in the way that only a 17-year-old can be. Soon enough Raeph and I got talking about starting a label to release some of our stuff.

So we scraped together a bit of cash, rented a PO box, got a fax machine, bought DAT machines for me and Simon, and went to see Ideal Distribution in Birmingham with a the first couple of prospective releases, which featured stuff from me and Simon as well as two other producers I’d been chatting to online – Detroit’s Sean Deason – who’d just released The Shit for Kenny Larkin’s Art of Dance label – and Chris Sattinger, who’d been putting out stuff on US labels like Synewave and Communique. Ideal were handling some of our favourite labels at the time – the likes of Classic and 20:20 Vision in the UK, and distributing Prescription, UR etc from the US – and we hit it off with them right away.

Those were the days when a completely unknown label, run by a couple of kids who didn’t really know anything, could sell 1,500 copies of a 12″. We’d sent promo copies out and I can still remember dancing with joy around Raeph’s spare bedroom when Laurent Garnier faxed the first of many reaction sheets promising ‘full support’ (at that stage we hadn’t cottoned on to the fact that he probably did that with everything he was sent!). Even better was a phone call from Andrew Weatherall saying he was playing my track at his Bloodsugar night.

While I juggled music with going to uni, we managed to put out a run of ten records over the next couple of years, as well as starting a night, Radius, in Cardiff, which let us meet loads of our favourite DJs and producers, some of whom would go on to furnish the label with tracks or remixes as well as becoming good friends. Things wound down towards the end of 1999 as I had to focus on my last year of uni – and Ideal folded not much later. Raeph and I were also starting to listen to more and more music outside the techno/house spectrum which the label focused on.

After graduating in 2000, I moved to London and ended up sharing a house for a while with Russ Gabriel, who ran one of my favourite labels, Ferox, and had become a good friend through playing for us at Radius. I was also speaking to Marsel from Delsin a lot online, and he told me about a new distribution company in Amsterdam that the guys from the Rush Hour shop were setting up. At this point Raeph and I were obsessed with the broken beat sound coming out of West London, as well as the more techno-oriented stuff that Enrico Crivallero’s Archive Records was releasing out of Italy, and while Headspace lay dormant for a while we decided to start up a sister label to focus on more eclectic sounds – Emoticon.

I rounded up some tracks from old Headspace artists like me, CiM and John Braine, plus Russ, Marsel and new friends like Matt ‘Future Beat Alliance’ Puffett; plus Raeph got some killer broken stuff from drum & bass producers Total Science/Q Project; and we went to see Rush Hour. The timing was perfect, as Delsin was just getting off the ground, as well as their in-house label, and we fit right in. By this point we were also getting plenty of demos, and we had a prolific couple of years releasing stuff from the original family plus new recruits like Scape One, Jeff Samuel and Connective Zone.

By 2002 I’d moved to Glasgow and was just about managing to scrape a living from running the label, DJing and freelance web design. We were starting to amass some great techno and house material again, and rebooting Headspace seemed like a logical next step – this time through Rush Hour, alongside Emoticon. There was a bit of a movement forming around deep, Detroit-influenced techno and we put together a run of releases featuring Fabrice Lig, Arne Weinberg, Rei Loci and Derek Carr. We also took things up a notch with albums from Russ Gabriel on Emoticon and Vince Watson and Dan Curtin on Headspace.

But by 2005/6 the industry was very different from when we’d started. Those initial four-figure sales had dwindled to a few hundred, and it was becoming tough to break even – especially considering the costs of mailing out white label promos. The digital revolution was starting to happen, but by then I’d drifted into a day job in journalism and didn’t have the energy that reinventing the labels for a new era would have required. Dan Curtin’s album was the final release, and I took a break from music for a while.

Looking back, there’s a lot to be proud of – I’m pleased we gave CiM a leg up into the industry, since he went on to release some incredible music on Delsin and DeFocus, and his pair of Headspace EPs have stood the test of time remarkably well (it was also great to have featured a young Morgan Geist on remix duties on Series One). It was incredibly rewarding to release music by good friends like Dave Anderson (Otomi), Simon Haggis (KLaSH), Craig Ritchie Allan (Rei Loci) and Marco Bernardi, and equally amazing to have had the honour of working with people like Russ Gabriel, Vince Watson and Dan Curtin, whose records I’d been buying for years.

It’s hard to single out a favourite release but, CiM aside, I think the Mark McLaren EP on Emoticon is a phenomenal record, even more so because he’s one of the few artists that I lost touch with completely and to me knowledge he never released anything else (Mark, if by any chance you’re reading, drop me a line!). As I’ve said, the majority of artists we worked with were either already good friends of ours, or they quickly became so, and that underpinned everything.

We never had a breakout hit or reached the level that would have let me work on it full-time, but I’m not sure that’s necessarily a bad thing. Looking back, we were probably too eclectic for our own good – most small labels thrive by focusing on a specific sound, and our taste was always too broad for that to happen. I never really thought of us as having a signature sound, but in the process of putting the mix together I realised there’s a certain melodic sensibility that runs through most of the music, and I think most of what we put out – particularly the later phase when we knew what we were doing a bit more – stands up pretty well as a cohesive whole.

This mix and post feels like the definitive closing of a chapter. But today I’m feeling more energised and positive about music than ever, and I’ve already dipped my toes back in the water as The Nuclear Family, in partnership with Laurence Hughes and with the distribution support of Rubadub. Let’s see what the future holds.

Mix tracklist:

  1. Otomi – Zusammen (EMOT 006)
  2. Vince Watson – Intrisync (HS 017)
  3. Dennis DeSantis – Leisure [Tom Churchill remix] (HS 011)
  4. Double Helix – Subscript (EMOT 014)
  5. KLaSH Productions – Scopex (EMOT 012)
  6. Russ Gabriel’s Audio Spectrum – Subliminal Dreams (EMOT 017)
  7. Russ Gabriel’s Audio Spectrum – Aldeburgh [Yotoko remix] (EMOT 016)
  8. Mark McLaren – Sit (EMOT 002)
  9. CiM – Edit Micro Tune (HS 009)
  10. Marco Bernardi – Trane (EMOT 015)
  11. Rei Loci – Transfiguration (HS 012)
  12. Arne Weinberg – From Consumption To Enslavement (HS 014)
  13. Derek Carr – Planet Jump (HS 015)
  14. Tom Churchill – Spaces [Dennis DeSantis remix] (HS 011)
  15. Dan Curtin – What Did He Get Us Into (HS 019)
  16. Connective Zone – Dude (EMOT 010)
  17. Total Science – I Know (EMOT 003)
  18. Q Project – Spek (EMOT 004)
  19. Future Beat Alliance – Head Ways (EMOT 007)

Last Session – Sometimes I Feel Like

This blog’s been a bit techno-heavy when I’ve managed to write anything over the last year or so, so here’s a choice slice of house – from the mid-90s Chicago dream team of Ron Trent, Chez Damier and Alton Miller – to redress the balance.

Featured on 1995’s Collected Sounds of Prescription compilation, it was originally the lead track on a great EP which kicked off Derrick Carter’s Blue Cucaracha label a year earlier and which – slightly annoyingly for people like me who’ve been holding it close to the chest since day one – was repressed in 2014.

It’s deceptively simple – just a banging 909, a bit of percussion, a grooving sub bass, that killer reversed-sounding string vamp, and some freestyle vocals – but anyone who’s ever tried to make house music will tell you hard it is to make it sound as good as this. It’s one of those records that’s sheer joy to mix, and it’s so well engineered that it sounds heavy on almost any sound system, at any time of the night. Killer.

Model 500 – Pick Up The Flow

It’s hard to believe this Juan Atkins masterpiece is 22 years old when it still sounds more futuristic than 99% of techno released today. Recorded solo and released on Metroplex in 1993, it neatly foreshadows the immense Sonic Sunset and Deep Space material he recorded for R&S with Moritz Von Oswald, with a super-clean, otherworldly feel.

Juan’s deadpan spoken vocals swim through icy synths and melancholy pads, underpinned by classic electro beats and the kind of meandering bassline that could only come from the mind of one man. It’s maybe not the best known Model 500 track but I reckon it ranks among his finest moments.

Elegy – Flights Of Fantasy

Here’s a slice of classic British techno soul from the golden era that’s the perfect warmer for an icy winter evening. On the fourth and final Likemind EP, Kirk Degiorgio is at the controls of this spaced-out groover which would easily pass for a lost Carl Craig masterpiece.

The drums are killer – a classic looping break and layers of percussion fx – and the hypnotic organ and synth loops power it along, but it’s all about the soaring pads that kick in around the two-minute mark. Alongside the likes of Stasis and Repeat (Mark Broom and Plaid) it brings a uniquely British blend of hip hop and jazz influences to the Detroit palette, and it’s no wonder these artists fit in so well alongside the instrumental hip hop that Mo’Wax was pushing in the mid 90s.

I’ve mentioned before that every track on Likemind is a peach, with 04 arguably the strongest set of all – the Nuron tracks on the flip are phenomenal. If you don’t own it, it ain’t cheap these days, but it’s worth every penny.

Convextion – Premiata

Gerard Hanson’s Convextion project is arguably most famous for the pair of mid-90s 12″s on Matrix that still fetch silly money on the Discogs market, but for my money his finest work has appeared elsewhere. A case in point is this cut from his self-titled 2006 album on Down Low, a timeless slice of techno with, to my ears, a heavy German and Dutch influence alongside the usual Detroit reference points.

A looping, motorik groove sets the scene before some moody strings make an appearance around the 1:45 mark, and soon we’re lost in a world of spiralling synth lines and vapour-trail melodies. Trance-like in the best possible way, it’s music that works as well for late-night driving as it does for heads-down raving, and it has an otherworldly rawness that’s only found in the very best techno.