Sunday, December 27, 2009

808 State - 88:98 (Original TC Review)

Best Price: $0.35

Universal Records: Cat. # USD-53139
Released 1998

Track List:
1. Pacific (707) (3:53)
2. Cübik (3:33)
3. In Yer Face (3:55)
4. The Only Rhyme That Bites (Extended Mix) (4:17)
5. Olympic (Flutey Mix) (4:09)
6. Ooops (4:44)
7. Lift (EX:EL Mix) (5:12)
8. One In Ten (2:41)
9. Plan 9 (LP Mix) (4:02)
10. Bombadin (Quica Mix) (4:44)
11. Bond (5:06)
12. Azure (5:44)
13. Lopez (4:31)
14. Crash (5:11)
15. Pacific (808:98) (5:56)
16. Cübik:98 (5:11)

(2010 Update:
The info and descriptions are solid. The quips are clever (at least I think so!). The grammar's clunky. Not much more to say about this one, to be honest. It's pretty typical of the reviews I was writing in the fall of 2005: content's there, it's just 1000 words too long.)

IN BRIEF: A decade of doing it for yourself.

Poor 808 State.

When major American label companies were scouring the British landscape for acts that could fit nicely into the coming 'electronica' strategy, this group seemed to get the shaft out of it all. Which is odd, really, considering since the beginning of their career, the sound crafted by Graham Massey, Andrew Barker, and Darren Partington, (plus former members Gerald Simpson and Martin Price) was one of the few techno acts that managed to cross electronic, jazz, and rock music effortlessly. 808 State were putting guitar licks over breakbeat rhythms long before Liam Howlett probably thought, "That hook would sound much cooler with a metal riff." It should have been an easy sell, right?

Yet, somehow it didn't happen. Acts like The Prodigy and The Chemical Brothers became publicity fodder, old schoolers like Underworld, Orbital, and Apollo 440 became soundtrack fodder, and eclectics like The Orb, Goldie, and F.S.O.L. became compilation fodder during The Year of Electronica. 808 State, one of the oldest groups about, was left in the dust to remain in obscurity, their only contribution seemingly being their original seminal track Pacific to be played on regular video rotation at athletic shoe stores.

Perhaps this ten year retrospective of their material (ironically released a year after the electronica movement fizzled out) can shed some light on the subject. After all, what better way to get to know a group than to delve into a Greatest Hits package? Surely the clues to the answer lie in 808 States history.

Unsurprisingly, we open up with Pacific 707, a track that may have sealed 808 State's fate regardless of what they did next. By no means the first song they did, it certainly is the one that stands the test of time the best. Sure, the rhythms and chirpy sound effects may have early techno written all over it, but with gentle pads that wash over you with wonderful bliss, you can't help but get sucked into that special place only the best music can take you. Add to that a wonderfully crooning saxaphone to give Pacific soul, and you have a track that folks will fall in love with again and again.

808 State and Pacific were forever tied together after it was released, even over fifteen years later when the EDM landscape, and even 808 State themselves, had seen amazing changes and evolution since those innocent acid house days. As will become evident in the course of this release, creating a timeless song can often be a blessing and a curse.

Having released one of the all-time greatest acid house anthems ever, 808 State would need something just as irresistible yet different sounding enough as to not get pigeonholed. Enter their second biggest single ever: Cübik.

Tapping into the burgeoning intense Belgian beat of the 90s, the group crafted one of the grittiest, grimiest, ugliest, and infectious hooks to emerge from that era. It is unapologetically coarse, essentially techno's answer to power chord metal. And, just like Pacific, Cübik still manages to resonate despite the obviously dated sounds on display -the only thing that probably held it from the limelight as much as Pacific was its obvious made-for-Madchester vibe. Intentional dance tracks like Cübik aren't quite as an easy sell to mainstream music lovers.

One thing is certain with Cübik and the not-quite-as-catchy-but-just-as-energetic In Yer Face, though: the seeds of every anthem ever created are ever present. The synths remain distinctive and blast out so effectively, you probably wouldn't even need those funky techno rhythms to get off your nutter. This stuff's just a quirky rap and diva vocal away from the brand of techno that would soon come to dominate the charts for a few years.

Oh, hey, what's this here? A techno song with quirky raps, that's what. The Only Rhyme That Bites sees 808 State very aware of the dangers of being tied to a single track, so they open the song up with a brief bit of dialogue: "The ones who brought you - opening of Pacific plays for a couple seconds - bring you something different." And, boy, is it ever different. Back when hip hop and techno still held an uneasy alliance, this undoubtedly was killer, and MC Tunes' lyrical prowess shames most modern rappers, even if he does resort to lots of metaphors that don't make much sense. However, it is also firmly rooted in the early 90s so folks not too keen on that era will undoubtedly skip past. Also, because it is so different from both Pacific and Cübik, if you came here looking for more of that, you came to the wrong place, which is going to hold true for a lot of what's to come.

For now, though, let's pay close attention to a couple more tracks that some would call definitive 808 State: Olympic and Lift. Even more so than the classic hits, these two tracks meld raw techno sounds and natural instruments so effortlessly, it's small wonder the group were rave darlings. Even when incredibly dated sounds as heard in Lift blare out, it still has just as much soul as the little flute melodies in Olympic. Granted, it's still nothing as memorable as you-know-what, but these are very pleasant groovers in their own right. One thing's certain, too, is 808 State didn't seem concerned if some of the sounds used were relatively ugly compared to the rest of the song. In fact, one could surmise they relished in their cheeky use of it, saying these absolutely inhuman sounds have just as much right to be here as any piano, guitar, or saxaphone.

Still, they could craft a normal sounding song just as easily. Ooops features a then relatively unknown Björk on lyrical duties while the Cowbell Machine Association provide a proto trip-hop rhythm with strumming guitars and cavernous effects complimenting the Icelandic chanteuse's vocal prowess. As for Björk herself, well, she does what she's always been known for. Her style is one that is practically impossible to describe, as there's really no other comparison to her on the planet (that I've heard, in any event). It's a method that, for all intents, just should not work, yet it does. I doubt anyone else could sing like her and make it sound nearly as credible.

Sadly, for all the dynamic production that was offered from 808 State at that stage of their career, they never quite were able to connect to the mainstream crowd quite the way they did with the rave crowds. The next batch of songs seems to indicate an attempt to reach the other crowds while remaining true to their sound.

One In Ten is a perfect example. Featuring UB40, the song certainly sounds tidier but with an eclectic rhythm that could be construed as a hybrid form of reggae and jungle (no, not ragga jungle). Your natural instruments like saxaphone remain but the electronic ones are subdued now.

Even more so is Plan 9. This is a very pleasant track using Mediterranean sounds like acoustic guitars, chirpy effects, and sun-swept beach atmospherics, all with great sounding production to bring the organic elements to focus. In fact, one could cynically say Plan 9 is an attempt to replicate the success of Pacific with guitars. I'd rather just say it's an 808 State trademark instead of a rehash.

Not to be outdone by the pleasantries of Plan 9 is Bombadin, a fierce slice of tribal-something. Hmm, it's not really house, and far too natural sounding to be techno. Yeah, there are electronic elements about but as with the previous two tracks, 808 State manages to hide them so effectively, you'd think they actually hired a twenty-piece percussion group.

As we move on in the years to some of the most recent material on this release, it becomes very apparent 808 State has left its ravey techno roots far behind. Bond, a thumpy, grungy tune, Azure, a smooth, jazzy d'n'b track, and Lopez, a mellow, morning-after bit of Brit pop, all see the non-electronic instruments and guest vocalists dominate completely. Heck, Lopez is mostly carried by a slide guitar, an admittedly cool sounding instrument that even The KLF used effectively, but is more commonly associated with the country & western camp.

I've heard a number of 808 State's old fans were put off by the group’s latter material, and I can see why. The Don Solaris tracks (of which these last three are from) suggest the group gave into the electronica movement, as these songs certainly wouldn't sound out of place on a This Is Electronica compilation lodged between The Chemical Brothers' Setting Sun and Goldie's Inner City Life. Yet, if that was the case, why didn't we ever see 808 State appear on any of these kinds of comps?

In addition, it's not like these elements were never apparent in the group's work even in their early days. If they wanted to do the techno stuff, they were obviously quite capable of doing it, as the track Crash demonstrates. An exclusive new track to this North American version of 88:98, you hear the trademark 808 State sound in full effect as erratic rhythms, natural instruments, and quirky electronic sounds meld ever so easily together to form a delightfully jazzy outing.

Therein lays your biggest clue as to why they were never tapped for the electronica movement. No matter what, Graham, Barker, and Partington are musicians first and foremost. Regardless of the instrument, whether organic or synthetic, they will make use of it to do exactly what they please, friend or foe be damned. I really don't blame 808 State for moving on from the techno sound that made them, as that scene had basically sputtered out by the mid-90s, so they were actually quite free to now do things they may have been wanting to without being tied down by their past. If you didn't like the direction of their newer sound, it didn't really matter to them. They were going to make the music they wanted to make.

Major labels hate that in the acts they sign. It's no small wonder the Don Solaris material ended up getting picked up by the "What!? No one else grabbed the rights? Oh, we are SO on that!" label, Hypnotic, for a stateside release.

There are also a pair of updated remixes of Pacific and Cübik tagged onto this release. The basic structure of them is relatively unchanged but they sound much more cleaned up as 808 State make them ear-friendly for the newer generation of party kids. I'm personally more partial to the originals but that may be more due to nostalgia than actual aesthetic. Like so many others, Pacific was my first introduction to the group, and it still remains their most endearing track.

Why were they unable to replicate the success of it? Truth be told, it would seem Pacific was mostly the work of former member Gerald Simpson, who left shortly after. Was he the sole reason for 808 State's major success?

I doubt it. Even without Pacific, 808 State would have still been a sonic force to be reckoned with. They may not have had an all time classic in their catalogue, but then they wouldn't be constantly tied to it either. The results of their genre-smashing work would have earned them the respect of their peers despite having a classic track. While not everything on this collection may be the most stellar music crafted, it will definitely keep you interested as you continuously try to figure out all of 808 State's little musical tricks.

Score: 8/10

Pacific 707

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

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