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The Essential...Mark Pritchard

Ambient, beat music, Chicago house, dread fare…there’s not much Mark Pritchard hasn’t turned his hand to.

Where many producers find Their Sound and build a dam around it, Pritchard’s output flows out in countless different directions – choppy runs, self-contained meres, and capillary rivers that fork off in unexpected places. The Somerset producer’s work can be broadly divided into two camps: his furiously productive creative partnership with Tom Middleton, and his highly varied post-Middleton output. The former covers a stack of different projects: Reload’s pic’n’mix techno, Chameleon’s hi-res jungle, the screwy boogiefunk of Jedi Knights, and, of course, ambient music institution Global Communication. Pritchard’s solo output, meanwhile, is even harder to compass, featuring works as Africa HiTech, NY Connection, Harmonics 33 and 313, Troubleman, and more – and that’s before we start considering his multiple nom de plumes (William Parrot, M. Meecham, et al). When, heaven forfend, the worst happens, spare a thought for Pritchard’s poor obituarist – they’re going to have a rough job condensing his life’s work into a 300 word bulletin.

For all Pritchard’s eclecticism, there are some consistent themes across his discography. He’s not a minimalist, for one: regardless of genre, his productions are rich, gestural, and almost always interested in surface dazzle. Unlike similarly nomadic contemporaries – Aphex Twin, say – his output tends also towards the instantly accessible. Global Communication’s lush, melodramatic work is an ideal gateway into the ambient canon; Pritchard’s Harmonic 313 releases counterpoint harsh sounds with lovely melodies; and the Troubleman output is well-suited to backpackers and clubbers alike.

All in all, Pritchard is one of UK dance music’s hardiest foot soldiers – and, being a modest fellow, one of its more underrated too. Well worth saluting, we’d say, particularly now that Pritchard has announced he’s retiring his cast of aliases. These are ten of his biggest triumphs.

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Weirdly, Pritchard’s first release was 1991 Top 10 single ‘Roobarb And Custard’ – a bit of toytown rave tinsel that landed a very young Pritchard on Top Of The Pops. False start aside, Pritchard kicked off his music-making endeavours proper in 1992, releasing twitchy ambient techno as Link and comparatively sterner fare as Reload.

Pritchard’s aliases tend to appear and disappear with mayfly-like efficiency, but Reload took on a life of its own. Originally a solo vehicle, the project developed into a duo with Tom Middleton and, eventually, became an outlet for a catholic selection of techno, soundtrack music, ambient and industrial-leaning releases (it’s telling they were briefly signed to Creation sub-arm Infonet) 

1993’s A Collection Of Short Stories – bundled with a collection of actual stories by Prichard’s old friend Dominic Fripp – offers the best representation of the breadth of the Reload project, sounding by turns delicate (‘Ahn’), desolate (‘1624 Try 621’) and properly hacked-off (‘Mosh’). The Autoreload EP – the middle instalment in a tripartite EP series – trumps it on focus, with the Pritchard solo cut ‘Peschi’ proving the standout.

‘Peschi’ is a stunning piece of ambient techno, comparable to Polygon Window’s astral 4×4, or the sensuous machine music being put out in Detroit by Psyche et al. Gorgeous synth washes contend with walloping industrial drum programming; the effect is like bathing in a bath of asp’s milk on a construction site.

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After an unlikely meeting in a poky club in Taunton, Pritchard and Tom Middleton struck up one of the more formidable (and, certainly, industrious) creative partnerships of the period. Having set up Evolution Records in 1991, the pair offset the clubbier Link/Reload/E621 releases with the ambient-leaning Global Communication project. After 1992’s Keongaku EP, a now much-sought-after 12″ of hazy, wraithlike techno, the project gradually became the pair’s bread and butter – easily their best-known musical outlet, and their best-received to boot.

There are a stash of genuinely essential GC releases. 1994’s 76:14 is, of course, The Opus – a delicately paced assemblage of downtempo house and beatless drift, long canonised as one of the all-time great ambient albums. The Maiden Voyage and Incidental Harmony 12″s are also pretty hard to fault as standalone releases. But none of the above quite nudge 1993’s shoegaze-leaning Blood Music: Pentamerous Metamorphosis – a full-length remix of Chapterhouse’s 1993 album, and Global Communication’s most satisfying full-length.

It’s hard to yank a standout from Blood Music – it’s less a collection of songs than one extended jaw-drop moment – but ‘Delta Phase’ is the peak – classic Balearic, draped with silks and studded with carbuncles. The track takes a few cues from Steve Reich’s phase music, and the quicksilver guitar playing is straight from the Manuel Gottsching school of alchemy. Straight-up classic, basically – file alongside alongside Irresistible Force’s Flying High and The Orb’s A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules from the Centre of the Ultraworld. 

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03. LINK & E621
(12″ SINGLE, WARP, 1995)

From early Reload through to Harmonic 313, Detroit’s dilapidated plants and workshops loom large over Pritchard’s music. Anthony Shakir, Urban Tribe and Carl Craig are all name-checked by Pritchard as major influences. ‘Antacid’ sees him and Middleton taking those ideas and sprinting with them.

‘Antacid’ is a squirming acid house bruiser – infected with the energy of UK rave, for sure, but elastic enough to suggest Pritchard and Middleton could be diligent Drexciyans when they fancied it. The track’s ambient notes and structural twists, meanwhile, betray the hand of Global Communication – not enough, like the title suggests, to totally neutralise the acid, but enough to take the sting out of it somewaht.

Fusing the sonic palette of Link with the grandeur of GC, ‘Antacid’ also serves a reminder that, rather than an antsy jack-of-all-trades, Pritchard is someone constantly engaging in processes of revision and synthesis across his career. Other US cities get a look in too, incidentally – check Pritchard’s soulful house pastiches as NY Connection.

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(12″SINGLE, CLEAR, 1995) 

In a neat, ahem, link, Pritchard and Middleton debuted the Jedi Knights project with a B-side remix on the ‘Antacid’ single. Just as Global Communication pushed for elegance and Reload dabbled in darkness, Jedi Knights had their own distinctive modus operandi: have as much fun as possible. No furrowed brows or trembling hearts here – this is Pritchard and Middleton appealing to booties and funny bones.

1996’s New School Science LP offers machine-tooled electro with Parliament/Funkadelic flourishes and unapologetically goofy titles (we see you, ‘Dances Of The Naughty Knights’). There are some classics here, ‘Noddy Holder’ and ‘Solina’ among them, but nothing holds a light sabre to TR-808 workout ‘May The Funk Be With You’ – an eight-minute bit of harlequin boogaloo, part Mantronix, part The Munsters. Daft Punk were vocal fans – and we’d be very surprised if Space Dimension Controller hasn’t given it some time too.

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Global Communication get all the attention, but some of Pritchard’s finest ambient material has snuck out under the radar. We’ll always have a soft spot for 2009’s stunning dark ambient piece ‘?’, which sees Pritchard connect with his inner Loren Connors. But arguably his most underrated release is his solitary Pulusha 12″ – the moment where Pritchard’s ambient work really touches the elysian heights of Eno’s Ambient 4 and Vangelis’ Blade Runner score.

Created in collaboration with former Opus III vocalist Kirsty Hawkshaw, Isolation is about as stately as Pritchard’s music gets – mist-wreathed melodrama with some of Steve Roach’s soft touch. Hawkshaw’s layered vocals bring Julianna Barwick’s ascension music to mind (and, thankfully, override the memory of ‘It’s A Fine Day’ in the process). That nagging sense of familiarity? Play Isolation next to some of Burial’s more long-form works, and it’s hard to tell the difference.

Pritchard, working with Dave Brinkworth – more on him later – would go on to produce Hawkshaw’s debut album, 1998’s jazz-inflected O < U > T, and the Pritchard and Hawkshaw shared top billing on 2004’s Ambient Vocals LP.

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Pritchard has intermittently dipped into drum’n’bass throughout his career. In 1995, he worked with Middleton as Chameleon, releasing crystalline, Timeless-style d’n’b. Use Of Weapons, meanwhile, saw him club up with Brinkworth, releasing jazz-inflected jungle on Danny Breaks’ Droppin’ Science imprint from 1998 through to 2001.

His best 160-and-rising release, however, is ‘The Drained’/’Migraine’, a one-off collaboration with Breaks. Forget the gloss of previous d’n’b steppers – this is Pritchard at his most ticked-off. ‘The Drained’ opens with twinkling Philip Glass orchestration, a rumble of thunder – and then we’re down to business. It’s pranging breakbeat music, tilting between nu dark swing and wild-eyed jungle. Fuming, mardy stuff, this – a whirling dervish dressed in plate armour.

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In his 2002 RBMA interview, Pritchard outlined his admiration for Kenny Dope and Danny Breaks – producers who started life as hip-hop heads, then migrated off to pastures new. Harmonic 33 was the result of Pritchard wanting to go back to first principles, mastering the hip-hop idiom in order to sharpen his skills across the board.

Harmonic 33 brought him back in a studio with Brinkworth, making quirky head-nod with a moth-eaten aesthetic. Debut album Extraordinary People plays like Dangermouse recording for Ghost Box – bright and bouncy, but shot through with a very British sensibility. ‘Where Have They Gone’ is the highlight, bumping like Premier at his most psychedelic. Consider it a neighbour to Edan’s technicolour freak-outs, and a blueprint for the punch-drunk music emerging from the One Handed Music clique later in the decade.

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(12″ SINGLE, 2003)

Pritchard’s Troubleman work is the marvellous sound of circles being squared – an attempt to make music at a house tempo without jettisoning the swing and knock of his Harmonic 33 output. After a couple of auspicious remixes of fusion legends Azymuth, Pritchard threw his lot in with Brazilian specialists Far Out Recordings, issuing two albums of jubilant broken beat and sloshed tropicalia.

Early Troubleman single ‘Change Is What We Need (Progress)’ is a perfect starting point. The track offers skittering bruk, lacquered, as per Global Communication and Harmonic 33, with a thick coat of varnish. Once again, they’re testament to Pritchard’s versatility –  these productions sound rooted in the back-and-forth of live instrumentation, and it’s probably the only point in Pritchard’s career where he could have fit snugly onto the Tru Thoughts roster. Not for long: from here on in, though, things would mostly get darker and techier.

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Around the turn of the decade, Pritchard threw his lot behind his Harmonic 313 project, putting out the frazzled digital bump of When Machines Exceed Human Intelligence. Although often impressive (see the frowzy dancehall of ‘Dirtbox’, or the knock-kneed hip-hop beat ‘Call To Arms), there was something a little slight about the collection – less texturally rich and compositionally adventurous than many of his other releases.

None of the above applies to ‘Elephant Dub’, his first and only drop for Mala’s Deep Medi Musik imprint. Elaborating on ideas explored on the fantastic 2009 Hyperdub single ‘Wind It Up’, ‘Elephant Dub’ sees Pritchard engage seriously with dubstep. Whereas so much of his work is about ornament or drama, ‘Elephant Dub’ shows Pritchard at his most troglodytic. It’s a clomping take on the DMZ house style, both club-ready and club-footed.

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(12″ SINGLE, PLANET MU, 2011)

A well-received Global Communication reunion notwithstanding, collaboration has continued to be an important part of Pritchard’s work over the last five years. Africa HiTech saw Pritchard work with former collaborator Steve Spacek, releasing the giddily eclectic 93 Million Miles on Warp. He’s also earned his Roll Deep stripes, handing a pair of techy instrumentals over to Wiley for his Evolve Or Be Extinct LP, and working with Riko on tweaked dancehall jam ‘Lion’. His recent procession of Warp EPs, meanwhile, has seen him work with legendary ‘nuum surfers The Ragga Twins.

Most spirited of all have been a series of collaborations with a third Roll Deep graduate, Trim – another artist happy to tilt between styles at the drop of a hat. Of all Pritchard’s recent team-ups, ‘Stereotype’ is the most consanguine – a playful piece of G-funk for dandies and Beano readers. Pritch’s beat recaptures some of Jedi Knights’ cheekiness, and Trim plays the sozzled host, boasting about his uniqueness (and, perversely, doing a rather good Roots Manuva impression in the process). If anything, ‘Stereotype”s a brilliant example of Pritchard’s continuing adaptability – his ability, putty-like, to mould himself to the task at hand.

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