808 STATE: NEWBUILD (1988)
1) Sync-Swim; 2) Flow Coma; 3) Dr. Lowfruit; 4) Headhunters; 5) Narcossa; 6) E Talk; 7) Compulsion.
J. S. Bach, in writing and arranging his music, had a great benefit in that most, if not necessarily all, of the classical instrument inventory had, by the XVIIIth century, reached the ideal form. Cellos, violas, violins, woodwinds — with the exception of keyboards, not much has changed for any of those things, because nobody wants to tamper with perfection.
No such benefit, sadly, is available for early pioneers of artsy electronic dance music. There used to be a time when Newbuild could be considered the ultimate in freaky shit stuff, and there have been rumors (actively supported by 808 State themselves) that the album was a huge influence on none other than Mr. Richard D. James. But look for user reviews these days, and many of them will express disappointment. «It's almost as if I camped out in a Casio forest», a guy complains on Amazon, and he's far from the only unlucky camper. In retrospect, Grand Historians of Electronica usually throw out the required five-star patches, but the rest of the crowds have simply moved on, discarding the past in favor of more «relevant», instantly gratifying pleasures.
But somehow, it makes me a little sad, even if I am by no means a fan of machine loop music, and, normally, the slightest talk about «Acid House», which 808 State allegedly helped bring around into European public consciousness or both, makes me scream in terror and run to my Bessie Smith recordings. Because, loops and rhythms and obsolete recording technology aside, Newbuild is really an excellent musical album. And, furthermore, I do not quite understand what all the fuss is about: to my untrained ears, Newbuild still sounds sufficiently modern. I've certainly heard Aphex Twin tracks that were far crappier from a straightforward sonic point of view.
What these three merry guys from Manchester (Graham Massey, Martin Price and Gerald Simpson) are doing here is making house music from an alien standpoint, borrowing the basics, crossing them with an artistic mindset that is influenced both by the astral dreams of Tangerine Dream and the industrial nightmares of Nurse With Wound, and coming up with enough individual ideas to make nearly each track a stand-out. Sure, they would probably work best as top-level soundtracks for arcade games — but if you find that demeaning, you can choose «sonic equivalents of looking out the window in a spaceship flying close to light speed». That's acid house for you all right, if you are really in need of labeling.
The album never relents or slows down: it is fourty minutes of pounding grooves, seven different landscapes that shift form and color, but never speed, lest you lose the proper momentum. And what they lack in the ability to program a real tricky rhythm or polyrhythm, they gain in the pure art of invention. 'Sync/Swim' is all based around the bizarre interaction between the funky (but also quite heavy-metallic) bassline and the cute (but dangerous!) synthy double-note chomp-chomp that may represent little alien battleships speeding past that window of yours in regular formation — or, in a microcosmic manner, batches of viruses speeding up and down your arteries. 'Flow Coma' is less heavy, but equally mind-blowing, a real delight to see these synth patterns flow into and out of one another, weaving harmoniously melodic psychedelic patterns. And so on. The only thing I am not sold on are the vocal loop overdubs — their presence on 'Dr. Lowfruit' and especially 'Compulsion' is grating and distracting.
The fact that the production is sort of shallow, and the ambience has nowhere near the «depth» of feeling from later IDM masters, bothers me about as much as the production on Chuck Berry records next to rhythm and blues British Invasion-style ten years later: a few minutes of getting into the groove, and if the groove is smart and stylish enough, you start forgetting about these differences. In a review such as this, they might spring up as a factual statement, but they really have no bearing on the intensity of the kaleidoscopic mind pictures you can get while listening to this stuff. They are so much fun that even the cheesy drum machine sound is forgivable (not to mention that, like all sorts of Eighties' cheesiness, that particular sound is guaranteed to make regular stylistic comebacks all through the 21st century). In brief — thumbs up; I'd even like to say that this is the sort of electronic dance music album that deserves hall-of-faming, but who am I to argue if the genre sees itself as a Saturn, bearing children only to feed on them for further activity.
Check "Newbuild" (CD) on Amazon