We revisit an electrifying UK techno EP.
Every weekend across much of the world, music lovers dance to the sonic assault of underground techno. The blueprint for this phenomena in Europe was laid down in the early and mid-'90s at spaces like Fuse (Brussels), Tresor (Berlin), Orbit (Leeds) and, perhaps most important of all, the Lost events in London. Before this, the acid house clubs and raves of the late '80s were musically eclectic. Chicago house, New York garage, UK rave, freestyle and Detroit techno were often heard across a single DJ's set. By the mid-'90s, the electronic sonic landscape had splintered and club nights became more genre-specific.
Techno underwent this change in the early '90s. Music dubbed "intelligent techno" veered away from club-orientated material and became more introspective and suited to home listening. Some club events, such as Lost, had dedicated "alternative" rooms to cater for fans of this innovative, often challenging, genre. But the main event was increasingly dominated by hard and fast four-on-the-floor techno. Detroit techno artists were the main influence on the direction clubs across Europe were hurtling towards. Where The Belleville Three of Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson had changed the course of electronic music in the late '80s, it was now Underground Resistance, Jeff Mills and Robert Hood inspiring artists across Europe.
Underground Resistance were the bridge between the more melodic, ethereal Detroit techno and the increasingly minimalistic loop-based releases that satisfied Europe's demand for harder, faster club music. The aesthetic—dystopian futurism—remained similar. But where the labels Transmat, Retroactive and Metroplex portrayed this vision with lush chords, angular melodies and funk rhythms, the sound of Mills, Hood and UR channeled this dystopia with distorted kick drums, menacing acid lines and sci-fi drones.
By 1994, this trend had coalesced into the dominant European club sound. Detroit minimalism, a harder, starker brand of Chicago house and noise-fueled European rave combined to influence the next generation of clubbers. This raw sound appealed to fans with industrial and punk leanings. It also alienated many of those who bemoaned this narrower, minimalist approach while yearning for the original Detroit sound. In Britain's second city, Birmingham, a place with its fair share of industrial dystopian history, there was Karl O'Connor, who became inspired to put some tracks together after listening to Mike Ink and Dr. Walker's Lovercore EP and the B-side of Aphex Twin's Didgeridoo. The 1993 Lovercore EP encapsulates the wild energy of the European scene at this time: screaming acid and crunchy breaks combined with a pounding monotony.
O'Connor's post-punk and industrial influences were also an important factor as he created the label Downwards with Female, AKA Peter Sutton. "I thought maybe I could pretend to be D.A.F.," O'Connor recently told me over email. "And also try and make a slab of hypnotic grooves like Swans, but electronic." The brutal physicality of the band Swans can also be heard on O'Connors classic Montreal EP, released on Downwards in 1995. It has an immediate bodily impact, which accounts for its enduring appeal on techno dance floors.
It opens with "Speak To Me," where a single warning salvo is fired off in the intro. That sound is a cue for dance floor mayhem, a call-to-arms to lose your mind and body. A nagging car-alarm riff is answered by a subliminal bass figure, a call-and-response that builds anxiety and tension. Imperceptible changes cleverly create a sense of movement within an essentially monotonous, factory-machine like repetition. This variation in hi-hats is now a standard exercise in hard, functional techno. "In truth I didn't have a clue, but I knew I didn't want handclaps," O'Connor told me. "Handclaps were the enemy. I wanted it to be a sonic surge that could possibly be played by DJs but also exist out there in the ether—continually modulating for eternity."
But O'Connor relented, collaborating with the handclap enemy on "Model Friendship." He places it firmly on the two and four beat—ironically, a disco production template—weighing down the pounding kick drum, anchoring it with its stark, metallic reverb. It encapsulates early '90s Underground Resistance, with a clipping, rough-edged sound full of the harmonics of gear being pushed to its limits. The EP ends with "Perspex," a more sophisticated, intimate track with bubbling, acid-like bass that extends out at the finale. The open hi-hat gives it a grooving quality, different from the relentless pounding of the other tracks. The legendary UK DJ Ben Sims puts the release of the Montreal EP and its impact in context. "It can be summed up in four words: Mills at Lost classic," he told me. "It was definitely one of those EPs (A side and B1 in-particular) that stood out for its simplicity and repetitiveness."
Montreal's repetitiveness and deceptive simplicity allowed skilled DJs to be creative. As Sims explained, "It encouraged the more technical DJs to mess about and create their own structure. Pretty much all the mixtapes I made in the mid-'90s had me cutting up two copies—it became a bit of a party trick." The lock-groove style of the EP, along with releases on Mills's Axis label, had a impact, leaving what's arguably become the most dominant influence on today's underground techno sound: pounding four-on-the-floor beats with subtle modulations. O'Connor's phrase "continually modulating" is a perfect description of Montreal, an EP that reflects the humble intentions of a true artist.