Kirk Degiorgio unpacks "The Bells," techno's most played—and perhaps most influential—track.
Jeff Mills is such a global icon for techno that it's easy to overlook his search for a sonic identity throughout the '90s. A skilled DJ known locally as The Wizard, Mills made music that ranged from house and industrial (with the band Final Cut) to brutal dance floor assaults as part of the Underground Resistance collective. An important solo breakthrough came about in '92 when he connected with Berlin's Tresor club and label to release Waveform Transmission Vol. 1. This relationship kickstarted the distillation of Mills' true aesthetic.
Alongside collaborations with fellow UR member Robert Hood, Mills embarked on a series of solo EPs for his own Axis label that began to define a distinctive individual sound. Around this time, techno experienced a schism between the hard, club-based scene and the more introspective "intelligent" techno material. Mills showed his ability to straddle both camps on EPs such as 1993's Mecca and 1994's Cycle 30 by having a musical soundscape element to his club-based excursions. Conversely, he added bite and rhythm to his more melodic tracks, giving him an edge over artists in both styles.
By the mid-'90s, Mills' DJ style and prolific output had seen his popularity overtake more established artists in the competitive Detroit techno scene. But his appeal had nothing to do with him mainstreaming his music. It was uncompromisingly underground, a perfect counterpoint to the growing commercialisation of the house scene and emerging superclubs.
The Mills sound was a simple but effective combination of sampled loops overlayed with polyrhythmic percussion, underpinned by Roland TR-909 drums. As a DJ, I recall many an hour in record stores with other DJs all trying to identify the samples. They were cleverly used, often just repeated single bar loops, so perfectly embedded that they weren't always easy to spot. This loop-based approach enabled Mills to develop a DJ style based upon tension and release. I saw him countless times at Lost events in London during the '90s. He would play a locked groove for a seemingly overlong amount of time, but just at the critical moment an open hi-hat would come in and the whole club would erupt. Just with an introduction of a hi-hat.
Mills eventually started a sub-label named after one of his most popular Axis EPs, Purpose Maker. The Kat Moda EP was the second release on this new outlet for his solo work. It begins with one of the most well-known techno anthems of all time, "The Bells." In fact, it's so well known that it's difficult to assess its qualities objectively. But it can be broken down into its components fairly easily. A fast-paced, saturated kick drum—quite highly pitched—drives an off-beat riff full of unresolved tension due to a warbling quality akin to the wow and flutter effect of tape. Open hi-hats and claps are added to the mix before a perfect usage of gospel's "call and response" method is played out with an eerie four-note melody duplicated by a thinner version with ghost notes. A sequence playing a Giorgio Moroder-esque 16th-note riff enters midway as a ride cymbal is pitched up and down in real time, adding to the uncertain harmonic centre.
Everything feels off-kilter, unsteady and full of tension. The Moroder-esque sequence dominates the latter part of the track until it breaks down quickly at the end. It's a phenomenal piece of music and was a guaranteed staple of most techno DJs for many years after its release.
DJ Bone, another influential Detroit techno artist, remembers hearing the EP for the first time. "I first heard the EP in '97 I think," he told me. "I was in a local record store in Detroit and saw it on the wall. So I grabbed one, gave it a listen and immediately grabbed a second one. It was that good." Bone still loves to play "The Bells" occasionally and adds his own inimitable DJ style with fast cuts and EQ sweeps. "It can peak the moment, set a mood or bring a techno set to a very funky place."
This touches on one of the key aspects of the Kat Moda EP and much of Mills' material: the subliminal funk element, expressed through a combination of drum machine swing, sample placement and dynamics. "What drew me to the EP was the swing of each song," Bone said. "They're all hard-hitting tracks, but the swing is juxtaposed with moments of emptiness. This creates some very unique grooves. I can still feel elements of funk, disco and techno all working together."
"The Bells" is followed on A-side by "Kat Race," an electronic reimagining of a sacred tribal gathering. Its loping rhythm repeats as clave hits and shakers drive over an indiscernible bassline. "Tribal" is often a lazy cliche to use with modern rhythmic music, but in this case it's fitting. The B-side continues the funk with "Alarms," a disjointed, more obviously sample-based affair before the heads-down club stormer that follows. "Cyclone" completes the EP with stabbing riffs and intricate, shuffling shakers. There's no obvious bassline, just the rumble of the distorted kick taking over the low frequencies—a common formula in modern techno. Known as the "rumble" approach to basslines, it's now ubiquitous in hard techno.
Kat Moda felt like the moment Mills had been building towards since his solo breakthough on Tresor five years earlier. Such was the impact of the EP, Mills' individual sound has now become a generic sound. So many artists have painstakingly analysed the elements of classic Mills tracks that "Mills copies" are commonplace, even as Mills himself has moved further towards a refinement of his template and into the realms of abstraction. But Mills copyists can only ever strive to an approximation of his sound. There's an innate soul in the tracks that comes from Mills' timing and sense of drama, the micro-dynamics involved in having just the right amount of swing and tension, and his background in soul, funk and disco. None of these elements can be captured by others. They are part of Mills himself.