Hot Grooves + Chill Beats = Electro April!

...sparking sonic explosions of gritty-sounding beat patterns, subterranean bass and frenetic sampling.

Review by Gregory S. Burkart

Well kiddies, spring is in full flower, and I?ll let you decide if that?s a good thing. But just because cute little bluebirds are singing sweetly above ground, down here in the FEARnet music catacombs the sounds are a tad more menacing and... unnatural. Obviously the leading names in electronic dance music don?t hibernate for the season either, because in April the beats just keep on coming. In fact, there?s so much interesting new material out there, it took us a couple of weeks to sort through it all. But hey, it's not worth having if you don't work for it, right? Don't answer that.

You may recall a couple months back we teased you cruelly with news of the next album of original material from electro-sorcerers Meat Beat Manifesto? but the wait is now over, with the release of their 13th full-length project Autoimmune. Since the outfit first emerged on the UK club scene over 20 years ago with Storm the Studio, group founder Jack Dangers (I love that name) and company have been bending and twisting the concepts of techno, industrial, EBM, dub, jungle, hip-hop, and half a dozen other musical modes into their own Frankenstein creation of bass-driven, sample-heavy beats. Their creation seems to mutate with each release into an entirely new monster, reflected in their multi-format stage shows that blur electronic sequencing, DJ improvisation and dance choreography into a crazy new paradigm. They even added jazz to their arsenal with 1998?s Actual Sounds + Voices and later 2005?s At the Center, further defying easy categorization.

Autoimmune is, as you might expect, a busy little storm of an album, but holds together well thanks to a solid structure and consistent mood. In keeping with the latter-day Meat Beat style, hip-hop is probably the easiest stylistic name-tag you could hang on this material, but nailing MBM down to any single genre is like writing on water. Sampling is still heavily used (the patterns are more chaotic here than in previous albums), the sequencing is sparse and rigidly robotic, and the ever-present kick rumbles down in frequencies so low I could feel them in this morning's breakfast, if you know what I mean.

These trends fall in line with the ?dubstep? style that started in the last couple of years to break out from the UK underground scene into mainstream dance music. ?Guns N Lovers,? the first single off Autoimmune, is a great down-tempo example of this genre, but has a more identifiable structure than the wildly chaotic cuts ?Hellfire? or ?Less,? which conform more to the ?glitch? technique, sparking sonic explosions of gritty-sounding beat patterns, subterranean bass and frenetic sampling.

Those tracks that sit more comfortably in hip-hop mode are strong, if not particularly groundbreaking. Standouts include ?Young Cassius,? featuring San Francisco?s MC Azeem (who does a great riff on the old vocal exercise ?the tip-of-the-tongue, the teeth, the lips?) and tons of robotic vocoder madness, all driven by powerful breakbeats; ?Solid Waste? re-tramps the band?s mid-?90s turf, but it?s still a creepy-fun listen, and the Reggaeton-inspired ?I Hold the Mic!? (vocal by Dangers) is reminiscent of earlier fan favorite ?Nuclear Bomb?? again, no radical departures, but fun stuff if your speakers (and your neighbors) can handle it.

Despite a few instances of that certain sameness, what fascinated me most about these new tracks was the clear evidence of Dangers? constantly evolving production skills. His knack for elaborate layering of sonic patterns, washes and effects assures that there will always be new sonic landscapes to explore, even within the comfortable confines of his signature sound. Fans should be pleased, and newcomers can consider this a good entry point for exploring MBM's body of work ? but I?d then recommend venturing further back into the band?s industrial roots to hear that darker, more threatening vibe too.

Another battle-scarred veteran of the Beat Wars is Juno Reactor, and even if you don?t recognize the artist?s name, chances are you?ve heard their music unless you?ve been vacationing on a distant asteroid? then again, their stuff?s probably been bouncing around the solar system for years. Tracks have shown up in the Matrix sequels, Mortal Kombat and Once Upon a Time in Mexico, PlayStation?s Jet Mojo 3, Xbox?s Mad Dash Racing, countless live sporting events... I wouldn't be surprised to hear one of their tunes coming out of the ice cream man's truck this summer.

Originally one of the key players in the early ?Goa? trance music movement (which has morphed over the years into Tribal Fusion and other dance genres), this London-based outfit began as a music & art collective founded in 1990 by Ben Watkins, but later rose to club prominence in the mid-?90s with a highly addictive blend of breakbeats and moody electronic sequencing. With their release Bible of Dreams, they incorporated traditional tribal music into tracks like ?Congo Fury,? courtesy of South African percussionists Amanpondo (who joined the band on stage when they opened for Moby in 1997). They later adopted Japanese traditional Taiko drumming styles for their single ?Hotaka.? This frequent blend of techno and world-music elements has become the band?s calling card.

The indigenous flavor of Juno?s latest incarnation drives their new release Gods and Monsters, which plays out like a mind-bending dance across seven continents. The lightning-fast beat of intro cut ?Inca Steppa? proves that Watkins can dart all over the map in the course of just one song. However, I would have preferred he open the album with the slow-building, ground-pounding, guitar-driven epic ?Immaculate Crucifixion,? which hearkens back to the band?s scoring contributions on the Matrix series, and quickly became my all-time favorite Juno track. Bass-blasting ?Tanta Pena? is in a similar mode, and runs a close second for sheer percussive power. Jazz elements come forward in the moody ?Las Vegas Future Past,? which uses real and sampled brass instruments to build to a powerful climax; the jazz freestyle influences continue into ?Mind of the Free,? which features some expressive piano work by Mike Garson, and represents some of the band?s most unique material.

The usual vocal guest contributions make their appearance, but none are particularly memorable until Watkins himself steps up to the mic; those tracks featuring his lead vocal stand up pretty well, not only as testament to his talent, but as examples of good songwriting that stretch beyond electro norms. Case in point: ?Perfect Crime (Superman)? sits completely outside the Juno sound, but holds its own as more than just a novelty; the folksy closing cut ?Pretty Girl? doesn?t work nearly as well, but it?s an admirable effort nonetheless, and a great mellow-out tune if you suffer from techno-fatigue by album?s end.

Once you're done chillaxin', let?s dial it up again and check out Negative Format?s broad-ranging techno project Gradients. The brainchild of electronic composer Alex Matheu, this group has moved freely among dance genres ranging from ambient to aggro-industrial, but Gradients marks a significant step up in ambition and scope, cross-pollinating through several electronic styles while maintaining a laser focus on the dance floor. Despite a tendency to slip into the same old synth sounds you've heard in a hundred thousand techno anthems since the early '90s, there's a lot of intricacy and emotional substance here that most club-friendly fare finds lacking.

After the lackluster opening cut ?Solid State,? the album hits its stride with ?Hues of Grey,? a simple but catchy track with a sawtooth lead synth line that builds to a fever pitch before sliding into a brief down-tempo break with a soothing vocal from Rashree Matson. The album takes a turn toward the epic with ?Foundations,? a down-tempo cinematic piece with lush, Vangelis-sized strings, sampled acoustic guitar and sensual vocals, and put me right in my happy place. It's a shame there aren't more cuts like this one, but after this point it returns to the comfort of traditional techno & EBM structures... which isn't a bad thing if that's your chosen groove.

Despite the lack of a real dynamic range across these 12 tracks, Matheu's technical skills with this material are evident, and he does play with the conventions laid down by pioneering groups like Front 242. His skills come through in cuts like ?Reaction,? which begins with a stripped-down, minimalist framework interwoven with vocoder passages (think Kraftwerk) and builds to a spiderweb network of interlinked sequences and futuristic sound effects. The closing track ?Granite? is also effective in its simplicity and warmth, driven by a gentle piano strain and low-key percussion, onto which an array of grainy filter patterns drift back and forth across the sound spectrum.

Even if you're not down with the whole buzzy Euro-rave sound, there's still some impressive treats to be found in Gradients... it's up to you to decide if it makes picking up the whole CD worthwhile, but personally I cherry-picked ?Foundations? as a keeper and moved on.

Speaking of moving on, I think we're pretty much caught up for the moment, but we can't rest for long... while you're busy checking out these bleepy bits of electronic joy, we're already heading back into the dark music mines looking for more choice weirdness, toiling away so you don't have to. You're welcome!