To boosters of British art-disco, the style's futurism is imperative; the music must sound abstract, electronic, otherworldly and like nothing that came before. Yet these same partisans also maintain that British electronicists are more mindful of African American music than are most Americans. Can British electronica possibly be both spacy and funky? That's the challenge accepted by acts such as Aphrodite, Leftfield and the Baby Namboos.
Deejay and producer Gavin King took the name Aphrodite--after the Greek goddess of love--back in 1988, when the ravers of Britain's burgeoning drug-fueled dance music scene proclaimed a new "Summer of Love." The dominant sound then was the stripped-down neo-disco known as acid house, but Aphrodite subsequently switched to drum 'n' bass, a jazzier style that takes its deep bass from dub and its high-speed percussion breaks from Indian classical music.
King's version of drum 'n' bass is neither as grandiose as Goldie's nor as experimental as Spring Heel Jack's. On "Aphrodite" (Gee Street/V2), he sometimes even returns to an acid house gambit: the familiar--if yanked out of context--hook. The album includes tracks that are all pulse and chatter, but also one that enlists the refrain from Seals & Crofts' 1972 hit, "Summer Breeze."
Most recent British dance music owes as much to hip-hop as to disco. Rather than sampling an indelible riff as the foundation for a rapper's remarks, however, it places the sample at very center of the track. King uses snippets of raps by Kid 'N Play and L.L. Cool J for, respectively, "Listen to the Rhythm" and "Woman That Rolls," and a familiar bass riff--credited to Quincy Jones, although it sure sounds like the O'Jays--to underpin "Rincing Quince (Slider Mix)."
The problem with these borrowed hooks is that they frequently upstage the tracks that contain them; the music's momentum often slows when the samples are introduced. The use of familiar riffs and rhymes makes "Aphrodite" more accessible to drum 'n' bass neophytes, but the album's most cohesive tracks are ones, such as "Cross Channel," which forgo second-hand soul for flurries of abstract sound patterns.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8181.)
The guest vocalist of note on Leftfield's 1995 debut was former Sex Pistol John Lydon, who howled atop a pounding house track. But the duo's second album, "Rhythm & Stealth" (HardHands/Higher Ground/Columbia), takes a cooler, funkier approach. British rapper Roots Manuva adds his comments to the opening "Dusted," and the album's showcase is "Afrika Shox," which features electro-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa. A long-delayed sequel to Bambaataa's 1981 hit, "Planet Rock," the track is a rich brew of stuttering electrobeats, vocoder harmonies and Bambaataa's gruff chant.
"The rhythm of Africa," announces Bambaataa, and Leftfielders Paul Daley and Neil Barnes do their best to follow that cue; the digital beats of such tracks as "Phat Planet" and "Double Flash" echo the intricate polyrhythms of West African drum troupes. Overall, though, this album is less aggressive than its predecessor. The sauntering "El Cid" and "Swords" have the disorienting, underwater feel of trip-hop, and "Rino's Prayer" sounds like a keening Arabic tune emanating from an engine room.
It's not unusual for British electro-dance albums to contain mostly filler, but that's not the case with "Rhythm & Stealth." The album's weakness is the way it shifts from kinetic to brooding. Half the disc is designed for the communal ecstasies of the dance floor and the other half for solitary after-hours reflection. Whether in dance clubs or on mix tapes, the album's "Rhythm" tracks will probably not fraternize often with the "Stealth" ones.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8182.)
The Baby Namboos
The first album by the Baby Namboos is all stealth: leisurely dub-derived beats, luxurious soundscapes and detached raps contrasted with ethereal female vocals. But there's a much easier way of describing "Ancoats2zambia" (Durban Poison/Palm): It sounds like Tricky.
In fact, Tricky appears on three tracks on the album, which was released by his label, Durban Poison. In addition, the Namboos' principal synth programmer is Tricky's cousin, Mark Porter. Just because "Ancoats2zambia" is unlikely to inspire any lawsuits, however, doesn't mean it's not highly derivative. Whether Tricky's influence was direct or indirect, the album doesn't give producer Tony Quigley, Porter and the other Namboos much room to develop their own style.
Aside from its overwhelming resemblance to the work of the group's patron, "Ancoats2zambia" is a remarkable synthesis of the harsh and the beautiful. The album's backing tracks are merely shards of sound, elementary loops, percussive asides and atmospheric sounds, yet they fit together like the pieces of a symphony; the title song sounds like a Philip Glass composition played entirely with items found in a scrap yard. "Hard Times" manages to integrate mock-gamelan beats, bursts of static and Aurora Borealis's sultry vocals, while "Get Your Head Down" layers anarchic squawks and sustained tones over a go-go beat. This is deft stuff, but it would be interesting to hear the Namboos' skills applied to music that doesn't take most of its cues from Tricky's "Maxinquaye."
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8183.)