Summer time doesn’t just mean beach, sun and sex or cricket, it also means it’s time to release a mix compilation. At least this year anyway, with what seems a significant collection of mixes hitting the shelves at the same time, many of them unusual entities in more than one way. The generally high quality of them is good news for a medium that has changed significantly over the years.
Where once they did seem like coveted sports trophies, as my friend Josh Meggitt once said. Podcasts have certainly undervalued their importance significantly, but Podcasts still often feel like friendly matches with no real significance, win lose or draw. Mix CDs still work well by playing off their association with established brands and the inherent prestige attached, such as Fabrics mix series in particular, but also other label or project-associated CDs such as the Berghain or Kompakt’s Immer collections. Selfishness is to be expected on such projects that aim to tell the story of a collective sound, refracted through the nimble of fingers of one DJ, but some DJs are also guilty of inverting the spectrum and overloading a mix with their own material and biasing the significance of their association, such as Lee Jones recent Watergate 07 mix. The antithesis of this is the trend for artists to release all their own original material as a collection, like Shackleton or Ricardo Villalobos’s Fabric sets, which has also warped the interpretation of what a mix CD should be. But generally this type of release does not qualify for the same level of comparison or criticism as a standard mix since they can ultimately be judged as a distinct artistic statement. The mix CD is, afterall, the club scenes equivalent of a live album and generally always reduced back to the fundamental question of whether it synthesises the club experience in 75 minutes of music or not. There are of course plenty of exceptional exceptions to this rule, with mixes that straddle the home-listening versus club-synthesis divide to great effect. In this case, to return to the sporting analogy, there are plenty of tactics to be considered in the mix CD: promotion vs self-promotion, home vs club, allow a build-up or come straight out of the blocks?
Marcel Fengler - Berghain 05
Perhaps the most extraordinary of the recent mix CDs was Marcel Fegler’s Berghain 05 mix. Arguably the best of the collection so far, it contains one of the most authentic simulations of the club experience captured on a mix CD, with an extended run of pressure-cooker techno that that shows no gaps, no incongruities and that begs to be played out loud. Indeed, this may highlight one of the limitations of the Podcast format, for although it offers potentially more time than a standard CD, it is nonetheless generally limited to headphone listening from a PC or an iPod. Overcoming the CD’s physical and temporal limits is one of the artitistic challenges of the mix CD, like writing to the constraints of a sonnet format, who’s reward is easier liberation to the stereo, home, car as opposed to the computer. Ryan Keeling makes specific reference to this recalculation of time in regards to the Berghain residents and their normally extended DJ sets. But whereas Marcel Dettmann and Ben Klock also had to overcome this obstacle in their mixes for the series, Fengler seems to succeed by roping in his influences and letting the tide turn to its own rhythm. Dettmann and Klock’s mixes are excellent, but at some point their eyes stray, sucking in all they see, and are almost “too clever”, while they also contend with having to cram in the “exclusive tracks” which of course add extra value for money (until the 12”s are eventually released). Fengler contends with these problems by keeping his eye on the ball and not being distracted by a picture larger than he can frame. Highlights are too numerous to name, but Marcel Fengler’s own “Sphinx” is superb as is the Regis’ remix of Tommy Four Seven’s “G”.
Of the exclusive tracks, “The Labyrinth” by Reagenz is patient and beguiling with its narrow, looping trajectory and yet its cavernous depths of dub.
Lawrence – Timeless.
Lawrence’s “Timeless” mix is also a wonderful set, but not woven together quite as well as Fengler’s Berghain 05. Perhaps its biggest let down is the failure to continue on, at least for a time, from where it starts off, in the melancholy, dreamy atmosphere’s of Lawrence’s own “Floating” (a beatless version of “Old Joy” from the “Sorry Sun” 12” on Smallville).
It seems that at least a small run of something more romantic and bathed in fire light would have served the mix well and is, after all, an important part of the deep house sound purveyed by Lawrence and the cluster of labels like Drum Poet, Smallville, Laid, Mild Pitch and more. As if to emphasise this need, the second half of the mix is relatively heavy for house and thus could have stood out even more if given a little more contrast in the opening segment. Indeed, it is the second half that works best mix wise, not least for its intensity, but for its selection. A few of the changes at the beginning show their edges while never being incongruous whereas the second half is all plain sailing. But to say there are two sides also suggests there is a middle or fulcrum point. In this case it is clearly the Morphosis track “Silent Screamer” as identified by Matt Unicomb.
Coming out of the more hesitant and softer opening, its lumbering and probing bass easily begins to dominate and lock down the trajectory, and it is from these roots that the second half begins its heavier descent. One additional point about Morphosis: the upcoming Conducted mix by Marcel Dettmann will also feature a Morphosis track at its centre, this time “Too Far” with vocals by Kae from the same “What have we learned” album on Delsin.
For some reason this track was regrettably left off the vinyl version of the album, when it is perhaps the most important of the whole set. Not only does it give the album its name via the chorus, but the remaining words provide a political context for the album’s angry, but elegant, outpourings while the middle eastern scales also celebrate the Lebanese origins of Rabih Beaini, the man behind the project.
To finish with Lawrence, another curiosity of one of the closing tracks, Mike Dehnert’s “Beat matching” is its similarity to A.nov’s “Lunar Drive” on Force Tracks from way back in 2000, one of the early tracks to appear on Andrew Weatherall’s mix CD.
Dixon – Live At Robert Johnson Volume 8
Dixon had some interesting things to say recently about record distribution and in particular mix CDs and where he in particular wanted to take things. As it turns out, this mix for the Live at Robert Johnson series is not only his last commercial mix, but the last mix of the series.
The set in the end is a strange one, miles away from his outstanding “Five Years of Innervisions” mix last year and more aligned with 2009’s “Temporary Secretary” mix. The first third is ambient and cinematic, the second third, mid tempo and suave while the final third works harder to romp it home, albeit with the more ethereal strain of house favoured by Dixon and the Innervisions crew. The ambition is almost its undoing and from this it is easy to understand why in the aforementioned interview Dixon said
“I am sick of two things. First, the [mix CD] format itself. When I felt I was getting warmed up working on [Live at the Robert Johnson], the mix CD was over. So, in the future, if I do do something, it will be longer than 75 minutes and with a constant flow…. In the future, I think I will do a mix that is available online but I want to do it with a new business model and this business model will include payment.”
It is easy to sympathise with him on the basis of this mix, which clearly has in mind a scope much greater than can fit in the confines of a CD, but in this sense Dixon is also at fault somewhat. He knows the limits and the rules: a sonnet has 14 lines and rhyming couplets, no more, no less. Do you need so long to set the scene, as in this disc? Is patience a virtue here or a restraint?
But what Dixon does achieve is to reconstruct a lengthy narrative from fragments of text. The spoken-word aspect of the vocal parts which adorn many of the tracks are cleverly arranged to give the sense of a story unfolding, a little preachy at times, like on Osunlade’s “Envision", at others searching and naked. The music accompanies the story remarkably well, staying lost and supportive in the back ground, and then rising from nowhere to carry the anonymous and changeling protagonist to a new chapter. In this sense, each new track feels like a spiritual transformation as it strikes the next chakra on its meditative path to enlightenment. But in the end, Nirvana never arrives. Dixon’s mix is probably just a bit too slow, too ambitious and even just a bit too camp at times.
Hatikvah’s track “Big mind” is the track that most embodies the album: spoken-word poetry, subdued beats and cinematic atmospheres.
Fourtet – Fabriclive 59
Reviews from this release have been mixed, meted with faint and/or indifferent praise at best. Clearly not a mix to capture the dancefloor experience, Kieran Hebden’s mix falls short by being almost nothing in particular at all. A quirky track selection and some nice hybrid sounds (like Youngstar’s blistering “Pulse X” or later on C++’s “Angie’s fucked”) to keep the undecided listening, are not enough. In the end it is a jaggered, splattered and rushed journey with little direction or sense. Tracks jump in and out and almost all are dominated by nervous rhythms or cut and paste vocals that jolt like an old bus on a gravel road when not given a rest. Trying to enter the music is thus an anxious experience. One other problem is the opposite of Lawrence, in that the centre point does not hold and seems more like a bad omen than a transgressive point. The first centre point is the crowd recording that plays for a full minute and a half at track 13. After this the mix seems to begin again until Burial’s “Street Halo” fades in. I would love to this dropped in a good mix, but here it seems forced and jars with the two tracks on either side thus dividing the mix again. Too much in too little space of time and the best tracks are some of the older garage tracks.