Features I by I 21.11.13

The messenger: a comprehensive guide to UK techno institution Luke Slater

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Quite simply, Luke Slater is one of the most influential and extraordinary electronic producers of the last two decades.

If there was a Techno Hall of Fame, Slater would be in on the first ballot; if you were to make a Mount Rushmore carved with the faces of UK techno icons, his face would be peering down at you. Daft Punk name-checked him next to Derrick Carter and Robert Hood on their ‘Teachers’, and the placement was a fitting reflection of Slater’s influential cross-pollination of gleaming Detroit techno, Chicago jack tracks, and the battering palette of hardcore breakbeats.  

Born in Reading in 1968, Slater’s musical upbringing began with him playing around on his father’s reel-to-reel, dabbling in piano lessons, and absorbing big band classics. After picking up drumming in his early teens, Slater got his first 808 when another member left a nascent band. In an interview with mnml ssgs in 2009, he would pinpoint a specific earthshaking musical discovery: listening to Street Sounds Electro Hip-Hop Vol. 1, which featured extended cuts from the likes of K-9 Corp and Newcleus. Slater has described the album as a revelation, and the first time he heard dance music that didn’t conform to standard song structures. His growth accelerated from there, with Slater eventually visiting the seminal Troll party at Soundshaft, a smaller section of the legendary London gay superclub Heaven. After an initial visit, Slater returned again and again, eventually winding up a resident DJ in 1988 and 1989, playing to mixed crowds in that iconic back room.

With hundreds of official releases and remixes over twenty years under a slew of conceptually distinct aliases, Slater’s signal-to-noise ratio is unmatched among producers of similar prolificacy, forming a discography that doubles as a definitive guide to techno’s halcyon beginnings and future fractures. Whether making an art of mangled metal as Planetary Assault Systems, churning out breakbeat choons under a variety of aliases in the early 1990s, mastering atmospheric techno as The 7th Plain, or proving his chops as an A&R with the formation of Mote-Evolver in 2006, Slater’s career is a tangled web of releases that are rarely staid, exceptionally focused, and continually riveting. The adoption of various aliases wasn’t just a form of artistic evasion or obfuscation. Each project seems individually detailed to certain emotional or functional needs, diverse and embracing variety without stepping on the toes of some other names’ output.

The following is an enthusiast’s guide to Slater’s long and convoluted career – a comprehensive account of his key phases and finest releases over 25 years of activity.

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1989-1992

In 1989, Slater moved to Brighton and opened the Jelly Jam record shop with future fellow techno icon Dave Clarke and frequent collaborator Alan Sage, which subsequently gave birth to the label of the same name. Starting with the ‘Momentary Vision’ 12″ as Translucent, Jelly Jam Records was the exclusive platform for Slater’s collaborations with Alan Sage from 1989-1993 under a variety of aliases. Listening to the early Translucent material, in particular the three year gap between the releases under that name, it’s tempting to view Slater’s time behind the counter at Jelly Jam and manning the decks at Soundshaft as giving him ample opportunity to refine his sound and commit to certain musical ideals that eventually became his trademark.

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While ‘Momentary Vision’ was a burbling melodic track recalling Model 500 or 808 State, the later Inheritance EP in 1992 was worlds apart, but just as alien – a slab of devotional, ethereal Detroit techno, with a few hints of the bluster coming from Planetary Assault Systems (see ‘RR-WE’ and ‘Spadang’).

Also key in Slater’s eventual evolution were two releases as 4 Slots for Bill in 1990, with ‘Focus’ evoking a mouth-breathing, cave-dwelling, acid-addled predator. The same year saw two 12″‘s from Lloyd Owes Me A Packet, with ‘The Pounder’ offering an effective emulation of Jeff Mills’ freaky classics. Slater’s purple patch, though, really began in 1992. He dived into contemplative bleep techno with the Passage One 12″ as Clementine, released on DJax in 1992 with striking illustrated cover art by frequent Slater collaborator Alan Oldham. ‘The Opening’ is grounded in cinematic intrigue, forsaking galloping techno in favour of emotion, and like many of Slater’s slower tracks, shows his knack for melody and skill in wringing emotion from palettes traditionally considered dour. Closer ‘Silent Voices’ is another Slater standout in an era full of them, sampling Dionne Warwick to interrupt the razored synth line that makes up what’s otherwise the EP’s heaviest production.
  

  
Slater’s two 1992 EPs as Krispy Krouton are dated but retain some of the ramshackle energy that still inspires punters to ask “Where were you in ’92?” The smiley vibes of this period are in stark contrast to some of Slater’s later scorched-earth techno, with cartoonish additions juxtaposing juvenilia and piano-house breaks. Especially notable are the drum kits in ‘Diet Ham & Mushroom’ off Krispy Krouton EP Vol. 1, as well as the chipmunk diva vocal and guzzling electro bombast of Vol. 2′s ‘Generation’. And if you’re looking for a time capsule of 1992’s indefatigable cheeriness, check out ‘Can You Feel The Sunshine’, the frothiest track Slater’s ever done (bonus points if you recognize Chuck D’s militant “Bring the noise!” sped up to a chipmunk’s timbre)Morganistic

Slater also released his Maiden Voyage EP in 1992, which includes a deliciously weird and addictive honking horn sample on ‘Stomp’ as well as diva-lite vocals under soft piano in the lusty Chicago house track ‘I Like It’. Morganistic EP In The Shadow is also notable for ‘The Enchartment’, which, whilst offering the vaguest hints of bluegrass in its progressions, boasts a technicolor arpeggio at the three-minute mark that truly skyrockets it to the troposphere.

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1993-4

One of Slater’s most feted aliases, 7th Plain (or, on occasion, Luke Slater’s 7th Plain) came into its own in 1994 with The 4 Cornered Room – easily the peak of Slater’s emotional techno work. Taking Global Communication to the club and forcing The Orb onto the freeway, it’s such a lush and beautifully propulsive album that it’s hard to believe it was made by the same producer responsible for the aggravated sonics of Planetary Assault Systems.

2DjaxSpacious and non-confrontational, it’s expansive music that demands engagement. Tracks like ‘Surface Bound’ are a triumphant drawl, while standout ‘Reality Of Space’ throws three different moods into one track, putting eerie distortion on minor-key pads. The reverberant accents on The 4 Cornered Room evoke everything from Gui Boratto’s gurgling minimalism to Orbital’s interplanetary acid funk, as well as The Martian’s soaring techno and the psychedelic skyways of Kevin Saunderson under his E-Dancer persona. Cosmologically speaking, the “7th plane” is considered to be the level of pure love, the level of The Creator and All That Is. Slater has said of the 7th Plain: “I have been there, I think, and try to write music to show it.”

This aspiration was also manifested in 1994’s My Yellow Wise Rug, whose tracks’ twisted energy suggest an interrogation occurring mid-lobotomy. ‘Excalibur’s Radar’ showcases Slater at his anthemic best, with a massaging dub bassline, and ‘Doup’ is explosive yet contained, like firecrackers under a fishbowl.The Astra-Naut-E EP introduces subtle motion despite floating elements and oppressive sound design, while the Shades Amaze EP (1995) shows Slater beginning to embrace suffocation and chiming disorientation more and more, zone-out music that still fits a techno template.
  

  
7th Plain might have been Slater’s banner project from 1993-1996 on GPR, but he was concurrently releasing a veritable mountain of side projects that presage his next steps as Planetary Assault Systems. Slater has always been a nomadic artist – launching Jelly Jam but recording for GPR, establishing P.A.S on Peacefrog while also releasing as the ravey Clementine on Netherlands-based DJax – but this period was especially fruitful. Clementine‘s The Time Explored EP contains ideal representations of Slater’s corrosive acid, with Zeus-ian thunderclaps and aquatic basslines alongside rubbery kick drums. ‘Sector 31’ off of The Astral Adventures of RK-1, released under his own name, is also a masterful exercise in controlled queasiness, while ‘Directical’ obviously references Underground Resistance And there’s no messing with P.A.S’ earliest E transmissions on Peacefrog, Planetary Funk Vol. 1, still sounds great nailing the hypnotic minimalism of contemporaries and inspirations such as Robert Hood and Jeff Mills (‘Gated’ shows just how much a hollow kick drum can accomplish with the right dose of ticking hi-hats).

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While producing all of the above, Slater was performing under his own name and coming into his own on Peacefrog with a series of EPs called X-Tront, with the cream of the crop organized in the compilation 92-94. There’s a strong representation of Slater’s diversity from the prior years of maturation and experimentation, whether it’s the shape-shifting electro-acid of ‘Bande Magnetique’, ‘Quad-Fonik”s metallic hallucinations, or the string swoops of atmospheric techno masterclass ‘Expectation #1’. X-Tront Vol. 1 was all curvaceous accents and acid regurgitations (check out ‘Metal Head’s’ crushing kick), while Vol. 2 contains no less than three bangers: ‘Moave Violin’ with its pointillistic synthesiser strands, ‘Sea Serpent”s snarling techno, and ‘From Time To Time’, which could be mistaken for Tyree Cooper collaborating with Tin Man.

It’s worth mentioning the Morganistic full-length Fluids Amniotic is an amalgamation of gruff acid and belligerent techno, alternately caffeinated and sombre. Leeching the most undesirable overwrought emotions from his aforementioned rave era, the conversational static and inverted elements collapse and rebuild in ways that could serve as Slater’s business card for year’s to come. Slower moments like the brooding ‘Let It Go’ suggest ships mooring in dangerously tempestuous waters, while ‘Wonder’ is a battle between clangorous drums and bass contortions that simultaneously accomplishes peak-time vibes and opening set mood-setting.

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1997-1999

For all the strength of the early work, it’s the full-length Planetary Assault albums that are the best primer for P.A.S.’ cacophonous ecstasy – a sound that marries emotional range with rhythmic barrage.

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Although he hews closely to conventional notions of techno functionalism and efficiency, Slater’s fills these tracks with psychedelic flourishes and full-colour detailing. It’s techno that can soothe as well as excite, with warm melodic beds providing a soft surface for Slater’s tubular bells and agitated percussive detail. The tracks on debut LP The Electric Funk Machine (1997) wring shimmering emotion from grey-scale variations in bass and suctioned percussion, with vast amounts of empty space. The song titles suggest a narrative (‘The Return’, ‘The Dream’, ‘The Battle’) and succeed in evoking their intended environmental settings, whether with scratchy whispers or horse cavalries bearing down. Closer ‘Shaken’ remains a P.A.S. staple, stuttering and spinning around a gnashing sample.

Follow-up The Drone Sector also came out on Peacefrog in 1997, suggesting Slater had a backlog of suitable material for which he’d finally found the ideal outlet. It’s a terrifically varied listening experience, with Slater managing to make elements sound delicate even when the structures are monolithic. ‘Tap Dance’ and ‘Motive’ bring to mind the grotty floor of a club following a marathon Saturday, sharpening geometric patterns among rancid details. ‘Long Lost’ is a wavy drone, while ‘Dungeon’ again recalls the luscious strings and distensions of The Martian.
  

  
Slater was eventually signed to NovaMute, the now-defunct techno arm of Mute that also housed producers such as Richie Hawtin and Speedy J and lives on today in the form of Liberation Technologies. While NovaMute never had the international success with crossover electronica the way Astralwerks did, Slater released his most personal work while associated with the label.

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Slater’s major label debut Freek Funk was released in 1997 (the same year the Chemical Brothers won a Grammy Award for ‘Block Rockin’ Beats’), and tracks like ‘Are You There’ are Egyptian boom-bap that show just how good Slater’s vocoded weirdness can get. ‘Zebediah’ apes Orbital’s spiritual bliss, a calm punctured by the tumbleweed bassline and swirling sample bed on ‘Bless Bless’.

1999’s Wireless was his second full-length on NovaMute, and it shows Slater further filtering his techno sensibilities through percussive signifiers typically associated with electro and hip-hop. With oscillating ambient interludes, tumbling breaks, and booming kick drums, Wireless is a classic of cavernous composition with a cinematic transportiveness, suggesting implicit narratives between the grooves.

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Berliner Festspiele | spielzeit'europa 09.10

2001-2002

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2001’s Atomic Funkster completed the partnership with Peacefrog, evoking dystopian romance and cleaning up the sonic palette without losing any of the disorienting psychedelia. ‘Twelve’ is the standout here, with samples sucked into a whirlpool of drone recalling Robert Hood’s hypey minimalism, while ‘Booster’ which first appeared on Planetary Funk Vol. 4, is a swashbuckling maze of bongos over layers of roiling piano, with a salsa breakdown at the outro. ‘From Above’, meanwhile, epitomises the type of luscious palette-cleanser Slater became so adept at deploying on these otherwise vicious P.A.S. albums.

Though he entered a rarefied echelon of crossover electronic artists upon signing with Mute, Slater’s creative choices during this period were uncommercial, the most notable being 2002’s divisive Alright On Top. Slater has described Alright On Top, an electro-pop album produced in collaboration with vocalist Ricky Barrow, as a career peak, and it’s so resolutely unfashionable you know it’s exactly the record he wanted to make. Alright On Top was Slater’s first release on Mute proper, and it’s bombastic in a way fans of Slater’s techno would normally embrace while simultaneously being overtly emotional in a way the same community would reject. The entire lyrical content of the album is focused on an anonymous romance, and Barrow’s soporific voice and clunky lyrics do the numbing, repetitive arrangements no help. ‘I Can Complete You’ is sappy disco, while tracks like ‘Take Us Apart’ have some truly risible vocoder work.
  

  
It’s heartening that Slater didn’t just capitulate to a demand for more stadium-sized melodic techno, while presaging the synth-pop on Mote-Evolver’s 2002 Head Converter EP, on which Slater plays guitar and sings on every track. The Traktion Aktion EP on NovaMute in 2003 was a return to punishing 4/4 form, but pretty much the only surprise here is that it took Slater until 2003 to release a song called ‘Intensity’. If you’re tickled by this major label foray by a credible dark techno artist, do yourself a favour and check out Slater’s major label reworks of Depeche Mode’s ‘Headstar’, and his ‘Super Luper’ mix of Madonna’s ‘The Power Of Goodbye’, both of which are surprisingly less than cringeworthy and show Slater in whitewashed, serrated fashion.

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2009-2013

With the release of Temporary Suspension in 2009, the Planetary Assault Systems project was  resurrected as Slater became the first non-German artist to release on Ostgut Ton. Given Ostgut’s reputation for purging the pervasive minimalism of early 2000s techno, the bombast and no-compromises approach of Temporary Suspension was a fitting partnership for both parties.

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It was noted upon the initial release that the gradual introduction mirrored the experience of climbing the stairs and arriving on a peak-time dancefloor at Ostgut’s home club Berghain, and those who’ve had such an experience should immediately recognise the rush of euphoric emotion involved.

Tactile and clinically detailed, Temporary Suspension revived Slater’s career, pairing blaring synth work with thunderous DJ tools and production so pressurised it could shatter a windshield. ‘Attack Of The Mutant Camels’ is as unhinged and terrifying as the title suggests, while ‘Om The Def’ has globules of extraterrestrial details that lift the album to a new plane. ‘Gateway To Minja’ could have been one of Slater’s calm closers, but it instead launches into the robofunk of ‘Sticker Men’, showing Slater still had some aggression to let loose.

P.A.S wasn’t the only project Slater brought with him to Ostgut Ton. ‘Symphony of the Surrealists’ was his epic contribution to the collaboration with the Berlin Staatsballet issued on Shut Up And Dance! Updated, eventually extended into the full-length piece Egopoint. Slater also issued his greatest achievement to date as L.B. Dub Corp with Take It Down (In Dub) – two tracks like washing machines that refuse to stop revolving even when accumulated lint and dust threaten to ignite the clothes inside. Both have a crustiness that sounds like Slater dragged tape under the feet of a sea of dancers, with stray ululations breaking through the bog. The title track has a gaseous, spoken-word moan that never boils over, but I’m partial to ‘It’s What You Feel’. Over a layered sample repeating “You’ve got to…”, the lyric introduction of “It’s not what you see/It’s what you feel” could be a defining celebration of the sensuality and sensory beauty throughout Slater’s career.
  

  
A joyous piano line is ushered in before getting filtered into the irresistibly funky outro. Slater completed his comeback as P.A.S with The Messenger, featuring a distorted self-portrait of Slater on the cover that served as an aesthetically acute choice for the freaky angularity of the album as a whole. As much as The Messenger was a move forward for Slater in terms of support earned from some choice DJs of the moment (see Silent Servant’s unforgettable remix of “Bell Blocker”), Slater has said that The Mesenger was actually an overt attempt at replicating the structures and emotions of The Drone Sector. ‘Railer’, meanwhile, appears to be an outtake from Slater’s lost album as The 7th Plain, Playing With Fools, while ‘Wriss’ succeeds as a floor-filler and a headphone listen.

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Though this year’s Unknown Origin is Slater’s debut LP as L.B. Dub Corp, the alias has been kicking around since 2006, when Slater released the ‘Rhythm Division’ 12″ on Mote-Evolver. The situations in which we encounter music conditions the content of the music itself, and Unknown Origin seems particularly timely, a subtly political record with a message of inclusion that doesn’t sugarcoat an unambiguous sense of danger within the melding of techno and dub. Slater considers L.B. Dub Corp to be a spiritual counterweight to the fire and brimstone of P.A.S, and it’s helpful to picture them in counterpoint, L.B Dub Corp as resigned but optimistic politician and P.A.S. as a fiery revolutionary, with both needing each other to achieve any effective and lasting change. The inclusion of British dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah is an inspired choice; the “check, check” in ‘Take A Ride’ is going to haunt my dreams for a while, as is the sober yearning of ‘I Have A Dream’.

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