Friday, 1 July 2011

The 20 greatest Warp Records LPs Part 1 (by Wil Williams)

Wil Williams is my brother in law. In the fifteen years I've known him he's been a constant inspiration in the world of musical discovery. First drawn to music by The Smiths, he caught the first wave of acid house before discovering drum n bass, jazz and electronica, finding time along the way to be the bass player in Creation indie 'almost legends' Adorable. A constant love during our friendship has been the music of Warp records. Who better then to give you the definitive guide to the 20 greatest Warp LPs....

This is far from a perfect Top Twenty. For a start, I’m biased – my Warp is a label of electronic “listening music” for “long journeys, quiet nights and club drowsy dawns”, so you won’t find critics’ favourites like Jamie Lidell’s Multiply or Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest in this list (unlike others). Secondly, I know much less about the middle than the beginning and the end: my love of Warp goes right back to the start with the Forgemasters, Sweet Exorcist and Nightmares on Wax. As a Warwick University student in the late eighties/early nineties I spent most weekends hitching to Sheffield to buy records from the Warp shop and then dancing to them at the Palais nightclub the same evening. I religiously bought the first 50 Warp 12”s, including every remix. Then I lost interest, picking up the odd album here and there, until Flying Lotus’ Los Angeles reminded me why Warp was such a vital label. Since 2008, Warp has released some of the best albums of the 21st century and you’ll find them below alongside early classics and rediscoveries from that lost middle period. Ranking these gems in order of greatness was an almost impossible task (which might explain why I haven’t come across another list that does so) and I’m sure there will be glaring omissions. The cut off for this list was the end of 2010 with only one entry per artist (with one exception). Listen with an open mind and “if you think on the same wavelength”, you’ll know who to contact/send tapes to.

Wil, Coventry, June 2011

20. AUTECHRE – AMBER WARP25 (1994)

If you’re an Autechre fan reading this you may well be thinking why choose Amber over the progressively more experimental Tri Repetae (1995) or Confield (2001)? The answer is because I am not an Autechre fan and Sean Booth and Rob Brown’s second lp for Warp is simply a lot more fun and a lot less irritating than these other more critically acclaimed albums. Building on first lp Incunabula, Amber is a spacier, more ambient affair than it predecessor, displaying far greater diversity of sound and mood by toning down the beats and turning up the synths. Whilst chin-stroking is deferred to foot-tapping on Amber’s funky (almost bouncy) numbers Montreal, Slip and Piezo, there are still the trademark darker angrier moments like the ten-minute Further and final track Teartear. There are also some stunningly sparse and subtle pieces like the drumless Yulquen and the hoover-bass groove of Nil which only add to the album’s overarching mood: the pleasure of isolation as visualized in the sleeve’s depiction of a pink sun-bathed desert landscape devoid of life.


Are Broadcast just a second-rate Stereolab? A third-rate United States of America? Or to mutate a line from LFO’s We Are Back, just imitators of the true creators? On their second album proper, the Birmingham quintet discover their own vintage sound: a fusion of Western pop with exotic charity shop influences taking in easy listening and European art film soundtracks, framed crucially with noisy rough edges. For me, the fairground tweeness of opener Colour Me In grates a little as it lacks the layer of “atmospheric noise” that sits behind the best of Haha Sound, such as the percussive clatter and throb on final track Hawk. Things quickly look up though after this false start. Before We Begin and Valerie both create a musical atmosphere of wistful childlike nostalgia for singer Trish Keenan (who sadly died in January 2011) to populate with her consciously fragile vocals whilst Pendulum sees Keenan’s cool soft tones layered over a harder screechy krautrock soundtrack to great effect, justifying Haha Sound’s 121st place in Pitchfork’s Top 200 Albums of the 2000s?


There are a number of clues on Ultravisitor that Squarepusher might be about to surprise and do something “accessible”. Firstly, the black and white images that dominate previous covers are replaced by a colour photo of Jenkinson himself staring bleary-eyed out of the sleeve. Secondly, there’s the sound of a fake live audience on several tracks, whose applause is acknowledged on Circlewave by an intimate “hello, my name is Thomas Jenkinson” from the previously reclusive artist. All intriguing stuff, but thankfully there are incredible tunes to back up this new user-friendly persona. Whilst opener Ultravisitor continues the drill-and-bass theme of previous outings, this time round the Aphex-like melody is allowed to dominate rather than dissolve. Then there’s the strong jazz theme that runs throughout, starting with the gentle (beat-less) guitar strummings of I Fulcrum and stunning lp highlight Iambic 9 Poetry, a minor key battle between jazz drums and keys where once again melody wins. There are still many disorientating passages, such as the wonderful eight-and-half-minute urban nightmare of 50 Cycles, but Ultravisitor is all the better for its “accessible” side and represents the pinnacle of Sqaurepusher on Warp.

17. !!! – MYTH TAKES WARP154 (2007)
Were Fujiya and Miyagi to move to Brooklyn and undergo a conversion to rockabilly, then the result might sound something like the reverb guitar-ladden krautrock of the opening and title track on !!! (Chk Chk Chk)’s third album Myth Takes. From here on in the disco-punk-funk dancefloor onslaught rarely lets up. Standout third track Must Be The Moon starts off reminiscent of Kuff Dam-era Happy Mondays before Nic Offer’s falsetto vocals interspersed with him rapping over a stripped down breakbeat remind us that this is very much a New York lp. Bend Over Beethoven cranks up the already dizzying hypnotic groove before the pace relents for the psychedelic guitars of the horn-stab-driven Break in Case of Anything and the warm bursts of falsetto on come-down track and album closer Infinifold. It’s Warp, but not as we knew it.


Nothing in Stephen Wilkinson’s previous three (heavily Boards of Canada-influenced) Bibio albums hinted at the range of musical styles and songwriting talent that burst out of his stunning Warp debut Ambivalence Avenue. From the Shuggie Ottis-like psychedelic soul of Jealous of Roses through the gentle guitar folk of All the Flowers and Abrasion to the Dilla-heavy beats of Fire Ant and the intergalactic space-funk of S’Vive, the nostalgic natural world influences are still to be heard, but as background textures rather than foreground songwriting substitutes. Advertising executives know a good tune when they hear one and have plundered Ambivalence Avenue’s warm melodies, most notably Amazon Kindle’s appropriation of standout track Lovers’ Carvings with its Walt Whitman-inspired “all is divine and mysterious” theme: "Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touched from". Bibio has risen above his influences and produced an electronic album of enormous depth and variety.


I saw them live only once at a pop festival in 99 where former Spice Girl Mel C was bottled off for attempting a Sex Pistols cover. Even in a field in broad daylight I was suitably moved by the intensity of Red Snapper’s beat-heavy acoustic-electric fusion to tell anyone who would listen that I had never been happier in my life. Our Aim is to Satisfy is the only Red Snapper album that comes close to capturing the raw power of that live performance. The tight drum and double bass-led funk onslaught of its first half (broken up momentarily by the slower soulful Shellback) runs seamlessly into the rub-a-dub soul of I Stole Your Car before jarring into the much colder, melancholic/ paranoid tones of the stunning climactic sequence of Alaska Street, Belladonna and They’re Hanging Me Tonight. It is this closing 3-song album-within-an-album that represents for me Red Snapper’s finest achievement, but the brilliance of the full lp is recognised by its inclusion in Robert Dimery’s 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.

14. SPEEDY J – GINGER WARP14 (1993)

In his review of Ginger (“a masterpiece of techno music as audio design”) for the US Allmusic blog, Joshua Glazer makes the somewhat far-fetched claim that the catalogue of Dutch techno producer Jochem Paap “easily matches the Beatles in terms of diversity, development and absolute quality”. Whilst Paap’s firmly four-to-the-floor debut lp (Number 6 in the (Artificial Intelligence) series) wouldn’t cause Lennon/McCartney too many sleepless nights as songwriters, Ginger does offer twelve beautifully layered and arranged slabs of what Warp termed electronic listening music with some highly memorable melodies woven in. Highlights include the Reuben Wilson Got to Get Your Own bass-line sampling funk of Beam Me Up!; the warm euphoric synth waves of Fill 14 and single Pepper; and the incredible closing track De-Orbit: the anthem of the Artificial Intelligence series and an absolute all-time Warp classic.


Seneca announces Tortoise’s arrival on Warp with a chaotic bang: Jeff Parker’s spaghetti western guitar wrestles with John McEntire’s demolishing of his drum kit to suddenly dissolve into the funkiest, eeriest jam on any “post-rock” record I’ve heard. The quirky off-beat percussion and squelchy synths of Eros take forward the funk theme, especially when the killer jazz-funk bassline kicks in, before sliding into the more familiar post-rock territory of Benway. Firefly ditches the complex rhythms and time signature changes for electronic atmospherics before launching into the guitar-hook laden pop of Six Pack, the closest the Chicago five-piece get to conventional or catchy. Further on, Blackjack layers xylophones and Morricone guitars over a pulsating beat to produce the imaginary soundtrack of a sci-fi western. This is an album where every track is a highlight offering its own peculiar fusion of styles and sounds and whilst not Tortoise’s most experimental work, it offers a route into one of the most important American bands of the last twenty years.


House. What is House? Dedicated to the “Pioneers of the Hypnotic Groove”, Frequencies opens by listing the Leeds producers’ influences (Eno, Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode, YMO) before providing one of the most thrilling moments of the whole Warp catalogue: the drop from opener “Intro” into the label’s first major hit single, the incredible acid-fuelled LFO (Low Frequency Oscillation). Whilst not every track lives up to the magic of this opening sequence (in particular third track Simon from Sydney), Frequencies does manage to capture in its bleeps and rumbling sub-bass the spirit of late 80s/early 90s British acid house, notably in vinyl side one closer We Are Back. “There are many imitators, but we are the true creators” states a voice reminiscent of sentient computer Alpha 60 in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville and like Godard’s dystopian sci-fi classic, Frequencies represents the distorted sound of a nostalgic future and one of the most influential British dance albums of the nineties.


The concept behind Warp’s Artificial Intelligence series was to create electronic listening music for the post-club comedown. Based on my experience of 5am in rented rooms in Coventry and Sheffield, a “hip-hop” (not trip hop) album called Smokers Delight (why no apostrophe?) fulfilled that role instead in the mid-90s. In the four-year gap since first lp A Word of Science (containing the Warp classic Aftermath), E.A.S.E. (aka George Evelyn) had lost partner Boy Wonder and found new member Robin Taylor Firth, resulting in NOW’s greatest work. Night’s Introlude kicks things off with that killer Quincy Jones sample from Summer in the City, referencing Nights Interlude on A Word of Science, an intertextual theme that would continue on to Les Nuits on third lp Carboot Soul (again emerging after a 4-year hiatus). Unlike Aphex Twin, NOW have no desire to spoil the comedown party by throwing a drill & bass curveball into the ambient mix halfway through to terrify its listeners. Instead, Smokers Delight is a smooth coherent (if one-dimensional) smokers’ delight of soulful samples (The Dells, Smokey Robinson, Positive Force, Bob James) and keyboards over dub-infused bass and laid-back hip hop beats with the occasional melodic guitar riff keeping things “herbalized”.

1 comment:

  1. Dude, killer stuff. Old timer bit: I remember when Warp was called Fon, on Division St, back in the day. Just the mention of Smoker's Delight (a cracker) makes me want to skin up