808 STATE: EX:EL (1991)
1) San Francisco; 2) Spanish Heart; 3) Leo Leo; 4) Qmart; 5) Nephatiti; 6) Lift; 7) Ooops; 8) Empire; 9) In Yer Face; 10) Cubik; 11) Lambrusco Cowboy; 12) Techno Bell; 13) Olympic.
Although many swear by this as the ultimate 808 State experience, I am not so sure. It is certainly different, and has enough evidence of the band still willing to evolve and experiment to satisfy the Supreme Court, but the direction of that evolution on Ex:El points to hardcore techno, and this means appealing to electronic music fans alone, instead of continuing to show us skeptically minded people how Electronica could be «Art» in the good old understanding of the word.
The idea of bringing in guest vocalists — star vocalists — to turn some of their compositions into near-pop songs was, as far as I understand, rather novel for 1991, and earned Massey and Co. extra points for innovation. But 'Spanish Heart', with Joy Division/New Order veteran Bernard Sumner at the wheel, is simply not a very interesting composition, just some hollow dance rhythms fed with keyboards that click very much à la Eighties' synth-pop. 'Qmart' and 'Ooops' have plenty of historical interest: they feature a fairly young and fresh Björk, still working her way up in the Sugarcubes, but already in full control of her powers — vocalizations on both of these tracks are wild and complex enough to fit in on any of her latter day excesses. Yet again, though, the musical grooves themselves are soundtrackish and not very interesting.
Additional historical interest requires every reviewer to mention that 'Nephatiti' features the first usage of the Willy Wonka sample "We are the music makers..." in electronic practice. Uh... okay. Whatever. I am actually more amused by the male/female voices trading enunciations of "Nephatiti" / "Nefertiti" as if over the course of a phonetics lesson. And by the grooves, too, which are a bit more explorative this time around.
The album's centerpiece is a nine-minute monster called 'Cubik', a gritty techno-funk thing that at least kicks some butt, rather than just sitting there and noodling for atmosphere. It is the most spaced out, alien-ish composition on the album, and it deserves its running time completely (actually, I believe the nine-minute long mix is only present on the US release; get it by all means instead of the brief three-minute teaser on the UK version). Ironically, it is also the most minimalistic of all the tracks on here — no atmospheric synth veils in the background, every ounce of strength poured into the warp drive of its principal groove, but play it loud enough and it will blow your mind all the same.
The other tracks, somehow, just fail to impress. Much of this stuff is calmly pretty, but 808 State are at their best when they are able to conjure little green bugs zipping through space outside your illuminators, and 'Cubik' is the only track here that freely provides that pleasure. Sure, credit has to be given for everything, including toying around with hip-hop on 'San Francisco' and adult contemporary on one or two other tracks, but giving credit is one thing, and finding words that would be kind and meaningful at the same time is quite a different one.
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