Monday, July 31, 2000
Choice purchase of the day has gotta be the Best Of Reactivate triple-disc pack I picked up today for the price of normal cd. The package, which compiles selections from the React label's long-running and successful "Reactivate" series of compilations, is helpfully divided into three different styles: Belgian techno; techno trance; and nu-nrg trance, and thus in one fell swoop eliminates some rather gaping holes in my collection.

Actually the separation of styles is at times somewhat arbitrary - apart from a slightly more prominent acid line in places, E-Trax's "Let's Rock" sounds like it should be on the "Belgian techno" disc rather than the "techno trance" one. But this is a compromise the compilers have made in order to produce three equal discs running in rough chronological order as they appeared on the original Reactivate compilations, from T99's brutal '91 masterpiece "Anasthasia" from the first compilation up to Simmon and Woolfson's somewhat self-descriptive '96 release "Evil Queen", which appeared on the twelfth collection.

The most valuable of the three for me is most definitely the Belgian techno disc (although it's nice to finally have Jam & Spoon's mix of "Age Of Love" and Humate's "Love Stimulation" on cd with the techno trance set), which covers an era of dance music which is oft-mentioned but now seldom heard, and even seldomer compiled. 1991, which is when most of this stuff surfaced, was really the last time that new sounds and individual records could really turn the entire dance world on its head, and this brand of fiercely energetic techno is brimming with stray creative impulses which subsequent dance producers have spent the entire decade teasing out.

In this music you can hear the roots of Jeff Mills' forceful minimalist techno, the metronomic intensity of trance, hardcore's heady fervour, the sickly hysteria of darkcore and the searing coldness of techstep jungle, but in many ways it stands apart from the various directions it inspired, both in its sonic blueprint and its general feeling.

It's interesting hearing this now after having at least partially explored all the music that followed because of how simultaneously amatuerish and effective this is. Most of these tracks are devastatingly simple in construction: a simple synth hook is looped over a muddy kickdrum and some rudimentary percussion programming (are those synthesised handclaps I hear?).

Second Phase's "Mentasm", co-written by Joey Beltram, has earned classic status for creating the staple rave sound of the same name. The mentasm sound, a harsh metallic quivver halfway between a synth riff and the lazer zap of a starship, has permeated into countless different areas of the dance music, and currently undergoing its third resurrection in the drum & bass scene alone. Having heard the mentasm in so many different settings, the stark simplicity of the original - the sound looped over a beat, basically - unnerves and yet makes all too much sense.

What strikes me straight away about Belgian techno is its ambivalence. The driving synth riff that propels "Anasthasia" sounds like the operatic death rattle of a host of angels, but whether it's supposed to be anthemically uplifting or compellingly disturbing is somehow unclear. More than anything it produces a sense of alarm in the dancer, a jolt of adrenalin as the body instinctively responds to sensory overload, but that alarm has no context, no subsequent resolution to relax into such as trance's perpetual bliss or darkcore's uneasy fear.

Instead the listener is kept a state of constant tension and heightened awareness, which I think I'd find would be very physically taxing after a while. There's a sense of naivete to these tracks which make them (or made them) prime candidates to slip through the back door marked "pop" (in fact many of the tracks actually remind me of 2 Unlimited), but the big difference between this and cheesy Gatecrasher trance is that while this is easy music to make, it isn't easy music to listen to. Even playing this whole collection in one go is tiring, because there's no highs and lows, no space to breathe, only endless, remorseless panic.

I'll talk more about the other discs tomorrow hopefully, but for now it's off to bed.


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