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The 20 best UK techno records ever made

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  • Classic records from Reload, Luke Slater, In Sync, Regis and Baby Ford.
  • published
    30 Oct 2010
  • words by
    Toby Frith
  • tags
    "20 best"
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UK Techno isn’t a genre as such, but it remains a criminally overlooked part of electronic music history. The period 1992-1996 was particularly strong, as myriad little-known producers released exceptional pieces of work, cross-pollinating a variety of styles and precipitating a whole slew of new genres.

British musicians have a knack of taking an existing sound and doing all sorts of peculiar, beguilingly eccentric things to it. Consider how Soft Machine approached rock music in the 1960s, unwittingly birthing the prog behemoth and making it unfashionable. A similar fate arguably befell the simplistic early sounds of US house and techno. By 1993 early breakbeat had begotten Hardcore, and Drum ‘n’ Bass was well on its way to becoming a totally separate strain, while under the umbrella of Warp records, a number of prodigiously talented artists – Aphex Twin and Autechre among them – were emerging with something that was still techno, but beginning to sound very different indeed.

The age of mass raves was now virtually at an end, with only the (now legendary) Tribal Gathering events left, along with the embryonic stages of the Big Chill. Club nights such as Lost, Sabresonic, Final Frontier, Atomic Jam, The Orbit, Voodoo and House of God sprung up to fill the void. The blossoming of Warp’s progeny was complemented by a host of similarly impressive homegrown production projects such as B12, LA Synthesis and The Black Dog. The sound of Americans Robert Hood, Jeff Mills and Dan Bell, invited by Steve Bicknell to play at Lost, set in motion a “minimal” trend that would see the flowering of such labels as Ifach and the aggressive thunder of The Advent and Bandulu, not to mention the more industrial approach of Birmingham’s Downwards.

Meanwhile, Detroit’s second wave would influence the likes of Kirk De Giorgio, Ian O’Brien and Steve Pickton, an, in Brighton and Edinburgh, ever so slightly isolated talents such as Neil Landstrumm and Cristian Vogel would begin to cultivate their own ideas of what techno was and could be. Kiss FM in London even had its own radio show dedicated to the genre, hosted by Colin Dale.

Yet by 1996 the music itself and attitudes within clubs was changing, and not altogether for the best. Whilst undoubtedly the DJ of the 90s, Jeff Mills’ three-deck approach – which had laid to waste many a dancefloor during an epochal period of ’94-’97 – had begun to influence a new army of producers and DJs who were singularly interested in the monolithic dynamic of “chunky” techno, a sound encapsulated and influenced not just by Mills’ own Axis productions but also a slew of compressed Drum Code records coming from Sweden. Melody and emotion were sacrificed to this relentless minimalism, and from a DJ’s perspective, it was soon more about how many records you were mixing rather than whether the tracks themselves were any good.

An era of looped techno had begun, and in my opinion it damaged some areas of the scene permanently; numbers in clubs dwindled rapidly, crowds only interested if the big US DJs such as Mills, Hawtin or Derrick May happened to be playing. Nonetheless, the contrast between the quality of British techno records released now and in 1995 is utterly startling, with only a handful of producers still pushing the genre forward. Like those prog rockers in the late 60s, many musicians in the field realised the genre’s limitations, and sought to experiment elsewhere.

So what’s the point of this article? Artists such as Aphex Twin, Dave Clarke, Autechre and Underworld have all sustained considerable artistic and commercial success over the past decade and a half. And before you start tapping your keyboards in anger, i’ll tell you now: none of those acts appear on this list. They’ve already received the exposure they deserve elsewhere. What the 20 records that I have chosen will go to show is a veritable goldmine of talent and ideas exists beyond the well-documented big guns; one that shifted the focus of techno away from its American roots. Hopefully you don’t need to be reminded of the outstanding qualities of Aphex Twin’s ‘Quoth’, of Black Dog Productions, or of Autechre’s ‘Eutow’.

Furthermore, there are many facets of the UK techno that aren’t represented in this list, such as the burgeoning free party scene embodied by the anarchic Spiral Tribe, whose influence on Dutch labels such as Bunker is not to be underestimated; nor is there space for the UK tech-house scene that emerged from South London. I have also steadfastly avoided mentioning the Gescom/Skam/Warp influence because to me it’s almost a separate genre that grew out of the period. This is of course a personal view, but I’ve taken care to include records and labels whose influence can really be felt in contemporary techno.

The likes of Luke Slater and Tony Child [Surgeon] cast a long shadow over the new breed of slick techno typified by labels like Sandwell District and countless other faceless 12”s emanating from Berlin’s Hardwax, constructed almost precisely for playing at Berghain. People are falling over themselves in blogland to chime in about how good these new acts are. I say that they’re doing nothing new at all – and 15 years down the line, that’s simply not good enough. Go back and listen to the originals.

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