History Sifter :: Concept 96

If you still consider Richie Hawtin a titan of techno, you probably live in Europe and go to electronica festivals. Except as a megastar DJ, he's dropped out of any other conversations of electronic music. There's been precious little new material from the Plastikman camp in the last 15 years and the work he built his reputation on remained unavailable on streaming services for far too long. To any casual techno fan, Richie Hawtin had all but disappeared.

Even though you can finally listen to most of his catalog online, I would argue he left out one of his most striking works, and it still remains absent. In 1996, Hawtin released one 12-inch single, every month, called Concept 1-12. Each was a strident, minimal beat exploration using a purposefully restricted set of gear and sounds. They were suitable for only the bravest and most inventive DJs. Reportedly, he recorded the tracks live, in the studio, and mixed each single at the last minute, giving himself little time to fuss.

I never managed to get ahold of more than a few of the original singles—but for a brief period, his Plus8 label offered a large cross-section of them, collected on CD. The Concept:96 collection remains a touchstone of my aesthetic development. In my very unscientific surveys, the people I've introduced it to—some who have little use for minimal electronica—are unananimously impressed.

It's easy to cite a handful of releases that are clearly influenced by the Concept series. Many of them, like snd's makesndcassette, ended up as landmark records in my personal history, as well. I wish I knew why Richie Hawtin chose to leave Concept:96 in the past, while he was bringing the rest of his catalogue into the present. It's too esoteric to change the written history of techno in the 90s (or even about Hawtin himself) but it's still one of the most daring—and therefore, rewarding—albums of his career.

Strangely, it even seems the (also out-of-print) remix record Thomas Brinkmann made, Re:Concept, is easier to find. These versions were made by simply playing the Concept singles on Brinkmann's vari-speed turntable with a sepearate tone arm for each channel—the same device he'd previously used to make versions of Wolfgang Voigt's Studio 1 releases. Sometimes, I suppose it pays to have a gimmick.

Ovary Lodge

Ovary Lodge, 1973

As a collector, I can be damnably linear. A record, like Keith Tippett's Blueprint, will send me scurrying around trying to collect every thing I can by him. Digesting a catalogue en masse, I'm trying to map it out in my head: Which are significant turns? What are curious diversions?

In Tippett's journey, Ovary Lodge is a major signpost (even if it's out-of-print and hard to come by). It's the point where he travelled beyond the reach of progressive rock. He spent the early 70s in that gray area of jazz-rock, but there is little purchase on Ovary Lodge for a King Crimson fan who happens on it after hearing his playing on Islands or Lizard. They could certainly be forgiven for expecting something more prog-like, given the ludicrous drum cage featured on the cover (plus, it's produced by Robert Fripp, after all). 

No, Ovary Lodge is a jazz trio session with on foot in the free jazz mold and one placed firmly in the European free improv tradition and zero feet left for rockist intentions. While the group pay some respect to tunes, any offerings are kept oblique. Drummer Frank Perry spends most of the record more focused on textures than rhythms. There's a familiar busyness to the proceedings that will sound familiar to anyone acquainted with the early Incus catalog. While there was a modicum of precedent, Ovary Lodge still offered new pastures and rich terrain for Keith Tippett (and his fans). 

History Sifter :: Child and Magic

I fully appreciate history's absolute need to reduce movements and entire eras to a sort of short-hand. Popular music is already in danger of suffering from too much history (especially overly reverent remembrances). Still, I think it's important to go back and visit some of the bits the fall through the cracks—not with the intention of adding anything to the canon but simply to remember the full breadth and color of things; to give history a sense of nuance. Not everything has to be remembered, but neither does it have to be completely forgotten.

Nobukazu Takemura remains too peripheral to go down in the annals of electronic music. He'll show up as remixer on the more important techno labels, but most of his material was released in the US by the likes of Thrill Jockey (more known for the indie-rock than electronica). 

On a whim, the other day, I gave  Nobukazu Takemura's Child and Magic a new listen. I quickly found myself overwhelmed, fighting the urge to rush to the internet and declare it a 'lost classic' from my digital hilltop. Of course, it isn't classic in the strictest sense of the word, but it is a rare gem waiting to be rediscovered. Even in its time, it was overlooked and undervalued, but might well be the best album in Takemura's surprisingly diverse career. 

Child and Magic was never available domestically except as an expensive import at specialty shops (which sounds weird to say in the age of amazon, discogs and torrents, but this was a pre-Google 1997). Even though it's out-of-print, it doesn't demand steep prices—it's not collectible, just a curio. Give it some time, though, and it's hard not to notice just how curious it is. 

Takemura's discography runs a wide gamut: from breakbeats to chamber suites; glitch-symphonics to auto-tuned song-cycles of warped lullabies. Somehow, Child and Magic ties it all together; makes everything sound cohesive despite obvious contradictions. The album is technologically advanced but filled with a naive wonder.   

Child and Magic ought to be an utter mess. Even though every style Takemura turns to is fully realized, he'll often switch gears mid-stream. At first blush the only constant is constant change. The more I listen to it, though, the more I feel the presence of a narrative. It's not a concept album, or literal narrative, but a sonic one. The album moves with a symphonic sense of scale and pacing. Takemura's stylistic hairpins might seem sudden and chaotic, but they're carefully placed for specific results.

Our history of the first decade-or-so of electronica has begun to take shape. There's no chance Nobukazu Takemura will be included. He will remain, instead, a treasure of sonic delight to those audio archeologists among us. I can readily imagine, a limited-edition reissue of Child and Magic a decade from now causing a stir with erudite collectors.

Bazerk! Bazerk! Bazerk!

Son of Bazerk, 1991

Sometimes, when you're reading about music, you just know you need to hear it. There was an extended essay about a Public Enemy related group, Son of Bazerk, over at the Quietus. In their heyday, they only managed one album, one fraught with difficulties and delays. Halfway through the article, I was trolling discogs.com for a copy. To start with, like many-a middle-aged white dude, Public Enemy was an early entry point and touchstone of hip hop in my suburban teenage years. More convincingly though, they argued Bazerk's style took hip hop's post-modern leanings even further afield. He was meta-meta. Songs would change tempo repeatedly. Genres would be mashed with utter disregard. It often sounds so 'in', it's easy to miss just how far out the album is.