Nottingham’s Lone has been flirting with rave nostalgia since 2008’s sun-drenched Lemurian. As a wave of other dance producers follow him down memory lane, Christian Eede wonders where the rave revivalism ends and the pointless pastiche begins.
‘90s British rave culture has been experiencing a renaissance in the last few years, with dance producers increasingly flirting with sounds anchored in nostalgia, from amen breaks to sampled MC chatter. But as this trend continues, it raises the question of who is carrying the torch for rave’s original spark of innovation, and who is simply approaching the past from a surface level.
Released last year, Jamie xx’s debut solo album In Colour is one of the most recognisable examples of the current rave revivalism, with ‘Gosh’, ‘Hold Tight’ and non-album single ‘All Under One Roof Raving’ all borrowing heavily from tropes associated with the illegal rave era; the latter is even built around samples from Mark Leckey’s rave-documenting 1999 film Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore. Where this material sat uneasily for some critics, though, was the level of cliché attached to his choice of samples and his repackaging of a scene built on anti-establishment ideals into something inoffensive and easily marketable – though that’s not to question his own investment and interest in the era.
Lone’s Levitate is the latest release to take inspiration from rave tracks of the late 1980s and into the ‘90s, a notion that has been stressed heavily in the build-up to the album’s release. His sixth album, and his third for R&S Records – a label that’s synonymous with the halcyon days of rave – finds Matt Cutler swapping the hazy, day-glo pads and jazz and hip-hop-inflected drums of 2014’s Reality Testing for a far more direct approach. The album’s first single, ‘Backtail Was Heavy’, was launched via a hotline, with fans told to call a number in order to hear the track like eager ravers in search of a party in the pre-internet days. The track in question is a dizzying burst of breaks and chopped up vocal samples which brings to the fore his love of the vintage drum patterns at the roots of what’s been called the ‘hardcore continuum’.
Clocking in at just 34 minutes, Levitate is a filler-free jolt of energy. “I wanted it to be an intense blast,” said Cutler, and it is. ‘Alpha Wheel’ kicks the album into life with a hands-in-the-air piano riff lifted straight out of the YouTube video you’d get after searching for ‘Fantazia gurners’; ‘Backtail Was Heavy’ is in the same vein, while ‘Vapour Trail’ folds in the dazzling melodies familiar from Cutler’s previous albums Galaxy Garden and Emerald Fantasy Tracks. On ‘Triple Helix’ some contemporary ideas find their way into the mix, opening briefly on a volley of TNGHT-esque claps that give way to clicks which subtly recall Chicago footwork.
But with such a particular bygone era as its central focus, Levitate isn’t particularly forward-thinking. Rave revivalism can be done well, primarily as producers avoid fetishisation and instead bring elements of earlier sounds up to date. The rave break in particular has been experiencing a rebirth, with labels like the Zenker Brothers-run Ilian Tape, Bristol’s Hotline and France’s Brothers From Different Mothers gaining traction, while Tessela and Truss’s recently relaunched Poly Kicks imprint also takes influence from hardcore and breakbeat. Excellent tracks from Neuroshima on All Caps, Shan on Running Back and DJ Zozi and Ex-Terrestrial on 1080p have also brought the sounds of the past into the present day without borrowing wholesale from them.
The sounds coming through on Levitate, however, end up feeling too much like pastiche. The vocal samples and breaks lifted from early rave music come together to create a sound that is more imitation than innovation; an era neatly packaged with its edges removed. Since relaunching in 2007, R&S has resisted being tied down to one easily identifiable sound or singular vision, signing up the likes of Delphic, James Blake and Tale Of Us. The label has also been sporadically returning to its roots, releasing tracks from producers such as Tessela and Alex Smoke, who are evidently influenced by its back catalogue. With Levitate drawing so clearly from ‘90s rave sounds – the beats, melodies and promotion of the album are entirely rooted in the past – it comes off as a flashback to R&S’s distant past rather than a step forward for label and producer.
With the UK’s nightlife industry enduring tough times, it shouldn’t come as a shock that some producers are looking to revisit golden eras. It’s a trend that can partly be traced back to Zomby’s 2008 album Where Were You In ‘92?, whose success lay in its gritty approach, with no smoothed edges or polished post-production trickery. But where the latest material from Hotline and Poly Kicks is focused on pushing house and techno into more experimental territory, others are too beholden to the past. Too often, Levitate is too tied to its overarching theme to achieve anything beyond merely looking back. Rather than pushing boundaries, it strikes with an all-too-fleeting buzz of rave-y buoyancy only to be followed by the comedown knowledge that you’re better off just dipping back into those early R&S classics.
Watching Altern-8 at Bloc this year left me with a similarly brief flash of glee. Their set was a checklist of ‘90s rave bangers (The Prodigy’s ‘Charly’ and Kicks Like A Mule’s ‘The Bouncer’), but that’s exactly how it felt: a pre-planned, routine checklist. If we are to prevent the UK’s club scene from decaying, we need the progression of compelling producers and labels who can open up new channels and introduce breaking talent, sometimes dipping into revivalism but never compromising their vision and individuality.