Saturday, December 26, 2009

Various - Techno Nights - Ambient Dawn (Original TC Review)

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EMI Recordings: Cat. # 724383598229
Released 1995

Disc 1
1. The Shamen - Destination Eschaton (Hardfloor Vocal Mix)
2. David Holmes - Minus 61 In Detroit
3. The Chemical Brothers - Leave Home
4. Dave Clarke - Winter (Armani Mix)
5. Red Snapper - Hot Flush
6. The Sabres Of Paradise - Smokebelch II (Beatless Mix)
7. DJ Hell - Sprung Aus Den Wolken
8. Plastikman - FUK
9. Moby - Go (Woodtick Mix)
10. 808 State - Pacific 707
11. N-Joi - Papillon
12. EON - Spice
13. Bizarre Inc. - Playing With Knives (Quadrant Mix)
14. Inner City - Big Fun
15. The Grid - Texas Cowboy
16. Adamski - NRG
17. The Prodigy - Weather Experience
18. Yello - S.A.X.

Disc 2
1. Orbital -Lush
2. Enigma - Age Of Loneliness (Carly’s Song)
3. William Orbit - Water From A Vine Leaf
4. Sven Väth - L'Esperanza
5. Phillip Glass - Labyrinth
6. Jam & Spoon - Hispanos In Space
7. The Age Of Love - The Age Of Love (Jam & Spoon Remix)
8. The Black Dog - Raxmus
9. Carl Craig - Landcruising
10. Aphex Twin - Donkey Rhubarb
11. Scanner - Mass Observation (Crackdown Mix)
12. Apollo 440 - Film Me And Finish Me Off
13. Björk - One Day (Sabres Of Paradise Mix)
14. The Orb - Oxbow Lakes
15. A Man Called Adam - Barefoot In The Head
16. The Beloved - The Sun Rising
17. Coldcut - Autumn Leaves
18. Vangelis - Love Theme From Bladerunner
19. Brian Eno - An Ending (Ascent)

(2010 Update:
That long break I took in 2005 must have did some good, as my writing had definitely gotten better, at least in the preamble and conclusion portions. Even the track-by-track stuff isn't too bad, kept quite brief considering how many tunes there are here. I also recall I felt we were selling TranceCritic's opportunities short if we didn't get as many major names into the archives as soon as possible, hence reviewing this particular release. It seemed like a quick and easy way to get some potential web search results. Heh, it didn't quite work out that way though.)

IN BRIEF: As diverse a compilation as I've ever heard.

The term 'electronica' never sat well with a large number of electronic music fans. The fact the music had been around since the 70s begged the question why, after two decades of distancing itself from all things entirely electronically produced, the rock media suddenly felt the need to join the pack in the mid-90s by creating an entirely new term.

There are probably a number of reasons I could detail here but I'll just address the one that pertains to this release. Fact of the matter is electronic music is hardly the simple 'ndds ndds ndds' cliché most rock circles would have you believe. While the more mainstream forms certainly do this, there are several forms that do not. So many, in fact, that their respective followings were growing far larger than isolated raves and clubnights could contain. Electronic music was diversifying, and the mainstream was catching on.

So what was the rock media to do? Their last big movement, grunge, had sputtered out from overexposure. Nothing seemed ready to take its place and all these other forms of music were making inroads. They did the only thing they could: bite the bullet and finally accept EDM as a legitimate form of music, only calling it a name they made themselves in the hopes of still being a trendsetter. 'Electronica' caught on briefly with the press, but not enough with the public to stick and was more or less forgotten as folks still used the old 'techno' tag instead (which is fine by me, as at least it's usually 20% accurate when talking about EDM). It's quite amusing to still see the rock media cling to the 'electronica' name when talking about new electronic music releases, as though they just couldn't accept the fact their term didn't catch on; they, the trendsetters of music culture!

Anyhow, electronic music was now finally being accepted as something legitimate for the music crowd (despite the fact 2 Unlimited alone had number one hits in several countries already) thanks to the boundaries being pushed by several eclectic producers and acts within the field. No longer regulated to dirty warehouses and gay clubs, music makers were realizing the potential of sequencers and synthesizers.

This compilation reads almost like a who's who of the electronic music world of 1995, and is easily a testament to the music's only limit being one's imagination. Separated into two discs -one featuring more rhythmic tracks, the other more melodic- Techno Nights - Ambient Dawn makes a strong case against all the naysayers that claim all EDM sounds the same.

Okay, so maybe The Shamen's Destination Eschaton isn't the best example to show how diverse it can be. All the elements that get mocked seem to be present: fey vocals, limp 4/4 rhythms, and fruity melodies. Hey, I'm not gay bashing here, just telling it as it sounds. Sadly, even Hardfloor's chunky acid build can't eliminate the glaring stereotypes present. I suspect it may be a clever ploy on the compilers' part though, as the next song showcases that other techno cliché: repetition. However, David Holmes' Minus 61 In Detroit shows off just how effective gradual builds through repeating riffs and layering percussion can be once everything peaks out.

Having gotten the main stereotypes out of the way, we start to get into some of the more interesting tracks. The Chemical Brothers' Leave Home is an excellent example of why they became the rock media's darlings, as their distorted guitar samplings from early in their career would be a natural bridge. But why follow it up with perhaps one of the poorer examples of hard techno in Dave Clarke's Winter? The beats are fine but, man, are those bird noises ever hokey. Couldn't they find a better track? I enjoy a good ol' bosh session as much as the next guy but not when the sounds are this bad.

If Winter showed off how fake electronic music can sound, Red Snapper's Hot Flush does just the opposite. Okay, so Red Snapper actually uses real instruments since they are more of a jam band than your typical one or two man techno crew buried behind racks of gear -the fact they use any gear gets them lumped into the EDM camp though. However, you wouldn't know it from this track, especially with a saxophone wailing along.

Taking a break from the danceable tunes is the childlike bliss of Smokebelch II by The Sabres Of Paradise. Content to hang out on cloud nine, this little slice of heaven has probably served as a pleasant comedown favorite for many clubbers. As such, it's with wonderful irony to have DJ Hell's Sprung Aus Den Wolken come next on this compilation, dragging you back to the depths of the underground with a no-holds barred pummeling hardcore track. The riff is unapologetically grimy, the beats fiercely distorted, and the hellish sounds are in full effect. Bwahahaha! Oh, pardon me...

Keeping things down and dirty is Plastikman's funky FUK and Moby's Go. Huh? Moby down and dirty? When it's the rarer Woodtick Mix, you bet. The only thing retained of his seminal original is the vocal samples. The rest is taken up by thumping rhythms and distorted synths.

Okay, time for another break from the intense tracks and 808 State's lush, jazzy Pacific 707 is a suitable respite. Unlike Hot Flush, who's jazz elements overwhelmed it and made it stick out like a black sheep, Pacific 707 makes good use of its jazz influence to meld it with electronics so nothing seems out of place. When that saxophone croons over sweeping pads and funky bass lines, it takes you floating over an ocean-washed beach as the sun rises over the horizon in the morning.

N-Joi's Papillon is fairly typical of most techno from the mid-90s in that the sounds and arrangements are interesting but eventually go nowhere in particular. It isn't that it's a bad song but considering just how unique every other song has been on this compilation thus far, you'd be pretty hard pressed to remember exactly how it went later on. Fortunately, EON's Spice comes correct by making use of the tried and true tradition of pilfering old sci-fi flicks for samples (Peter Hyam's Dune, just in case the title wasn't a dead giveaway) and creating a thumping bit of sound-effect drenched techno. Mind, the hoover riff that alternates with a trancey riff sounds horribly dated now but don't let that turn you off from the rest.

Not to be outdone by all the techno on hand, house gets a moment to shine with the next pair of tracks. While Bizarre Inc.'s Playing With Knives is best described as a collage of various house tracks, Inner City's Big Fun stands out with an irresistible bassline, catchy vocals, and an embellishing piano to finish off.

Now things start to delve into more quirky territory on this disc. The Grid's Texas Cowboy is hardly what I'd call conventional techno with its country influenced melodies. Fortunately, it doesn't get bogged down in novelty (like, er, nearly every other EDM song that tried it) so it works fine enough. Adamski's NRG, though, is so filled with goofy sounds and samples, the fun, funky house track underneath tends to either get buried or overlooked. And then we have Experience-era Prodigy, which would have been unique in itself (no one else managed to emulate the hyper-fast breakbeat sound Howlett spearheaded) but Weather Experience was an odd track even for The Prodigy; it wasn't very often you'd hear ambient intros or hip hop rhythms from them in those days. And finally, we have a track from Yello (more commonly known as the Oh Yeah guys), a group that, despite making electronic music, never felt constrained by standards as evidenced by the salsa influenced S.A.X. Truly, an odd, if eclectic, quartet of songs to finish the first disc off.

However, just in case you are still feeling a bit of groove in your system, the Ambient Dawn disc opens with Orbital's Lush, a fairly dancey track that's main feature is a flute melody played throughout. The rest is more or less Orbital styled techno.

Enigma, William Orbit, and of all people, Sven Väth, bring us a run of the more meditative aspects of EDM. The latter two are quite indicative of where BT-styled trance would be headed in the years to come. As such, these offerings are far simpler in their delivery than the overblown varieties to be had lately.

Moving on to the more noodly aspects of ambient music, classical composer Phillip Glass makes use of minimal synth arrangements in the avant-garde Labyrinth. While it sounds interesting for a while, the song meanders far too much. The rare ambient track Hispanos In Space from Jam & Spoon fares better, even if the EQing on it seems odd. The only element that really jumps out is a Spanish guitar periodically strumming throughout. The rest of the song, from singing conquistadors to spacey pads, is heavily subdued and distant sounding, as though Jam & Spoon only allowed the reverb past the mixdown. It's an interesting experiment but I can't see anyone other than dedicated fans of ambient getting into this.

Just in case the last two tracks had you dozing a bit, the energetic Age Of Love will snap you back to attention. A radio edit of the original Jam & Spoon remix (so no drawn out lead-in or grating acid noises), the song leaps right into the sweeping vocal build and climax that still has ravers reaching for the lasers once it peaks out.

Still, this is supposed to be the chill out disc between the two so we dive right back into slower BPM territory with The Black Dog's Raxmus. After a THC-drenched intro, trip-hop rhythms dominate this dubby affair. Not to be outdone, electro gets a chance to show off how mellow it can be as well in Carl Craig's Landcruising. While there is some tempo to this track, the blissy pad work keeps things on a gentle cruise control.

Diving headfirst into more experimental territory is Aphex Twin's Donkey Rhubarb, an incredibly odd track that has a decent song lurking somewhere underneath all the glitchy noises and faux-steel drum sounds. James' music is often praised, and for good reason, but if you are new to the Twin, this isn't the song to start with.

A ho-hum track with Scanner passes by without much notice but segues quite nicely into Apollo 440's Film Me And Finish Me Off. The bass is instantly catchy and various elements such as flutes and high-note guitar strums harmonize wonderfully to create a vivid portrait of the disposable nature of Hollywood. Think Depeche Mode with more bump to it.

The Sabres Of Paradise give Björk a little re-rub on her song One Day, essentially stripping away all musical elements to allow the Icelandic singer to carry the song on the strength of her voice alone, with a thick, meandering beat providing a little tempo. It's still more experimental territory though, so some folks may be thrown for a loop. The Orb keeps us in this region with Oxbow Lakes, a track that starts out ordinary enough with a little piano melody but soon descends into dubby, submerged electronics bubbling to the surface from the depths of soundwaves.

Okay, you say, enough with the experimental tracks. How about some nice songs that you can easily get into? The next pair of tracks should be right up your alley then, as A Man Called Adam and The Beloved provide some dreamy examples of after-hours house. Oh, and in case you are wondering why the vocal sample in The Sun Rising sounds so familiar, it's because it's the same one Orbital would go on to use in their track Belfast (the original being from Hildegard Of Bingen of Hyperion Records).

R&B and jazz influences dominate in Coldcut's Autumn Leaves as organic sounds and samples are used to give this track a Hollywood production quality. Different percussion elements are used as needed, drawing from both hip hop and jazz roots, as soulful lyrics are sung with subdued passion. Although sampling is evident, it is woven with such skill that the song sounds as though it was performed with live instruments inside a smoky jazz hall. Perhaps the only drawback is the lack of any electronic elements (although some of the percussion uses a few, minor filters) but then that's kind of the point of this track.

And, just as with the first disc, we come to the end of the second disc with a pair of musicians that aren't normally associated with your typical electronic music producers. It's a bit sad that many kids these days don't even know who Vangelis or Brian Eno are but these guys are some of the pioneers of ambient music (heck, Eno was the one who coined the term) and, as such, are deserved to be put on this compilation with the more well known artists. After all, Eno's An Ending (Ascent) is probably one of the most perfect pieces of music to end any collection of songs with.

Looking at the track list on this release ten years since it was first released, it's amazing to see how many of the acts on here turned out. It reads as a veritable who's who of the EDM world these days but, for its time, a great number of these acts were either brand spanking new or even obscure. Who in their right mind could predict Moby, The Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy, or William Orbit (with Madonna) going on to dominate the music charts the way they did just from judging their material here? Who could have foreseen DJ Hell going on to spearhead an 80s revival just from listening to his gabber offering here? Who'd have thought dynamic producers such as Red Snapper, Adamski, Apollo 440, and The Grid would fall off the way they did shortly after?

Still, for as dynamic a line-up this compilation contains, there are some glaring problems to be had.

First and foremost, while I applaud the desire to make a compilation showcasing the wide range EDM encompasses, there is simply way too much covered here without much logical flow between tracks. As a result, things tend to sound disjointed when playing through. It can be quite jarring to be listening to one style of music for a couple songs only to be thrust into something completely different with the next few.

Second and middlemost, these are not all well-known songs from these acts. While some of them wouldn't make their more memorable music until later, some of the track selections still seem odd for the time this compilation was made. Weather Experience for The Prodigy instead of their Jilted material? FUK instead of Spastik for Plastikman? Oxbow Lakes from the more experimental Orbus Terrarum Orb album? I'll grant it's quite wonderful to see some real rarities like Jam & Spoon's Hispanos In Space get attention but if you're making a compilation of EDM showing off as many artists as possible, wouldn't you want to include stronger material than some of the tracks selected?

Third and rearmost, a number of these songs are cut short. Some aren't as bad as others, of course, but hearing only a couple minutes of, say, Orbital's Lush or The Orb's Oxbow Lakes begs the question why bother including these songs at all. I understand in order to cram thirty-seven tracks onto two discs some editing on the length of tracks would need to be made. However, if one is already familiar with a track, to hear it end sooner than normally expected can leave a souring effect on the rest of the release. I sometimes get the impression this is more of a sampler release than a commercial one.

And really, perhaps that's all one should treat this compilation as: a sampler of the wider world of electronic music. Chances are if you have already immersed yourself into EDM, you won't find much more here than what you'd already own in one form or another. However, if you are just starting to branch out by all means give Techno Nights - Ambient Dawn a go. It's best treated as a crash course in electronic music as the variety present here is immense. While there are still stereotypes to be had, they are by no means to rule.

Score: 6/10

David Holmes - Minus 61 In Detroit
Apollo 440 - Film Me And Finish Me Off
Coldcut - Autumn Leaves

Written by Sykonee. Originally published 2005 for© All rights reserved.

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