While its songfulness quotient is always on the rise, the role of the singer in the microhouse/pop/electro corner has largely been limited to that of the cipher or siren. As dance music first and foremost, most of these songs - even those of a neuromantic persuasion - shy away from personality in favour of deliberate and precise stylisation: as with the traditional house diva, the vocal is pure signifier. This remains so regardless of the singularity or the uniqueness of the grain of the vocal or nature of lyrical conceits on display. In the intentionally generic post-Kraftwerk effeteness of the male German vocal so predominant in the genre, the essential absence of Luomo's desiring divas, and even the arch histrionics of Coloma's Rob Taylor, there is a sense that the purpose of the vocal is purely or largely effect, and not for it to act as a conduit for some active consciousness behind the music (let's leave aside the question of whether such a thing is actually possible - it's the sense of its possibility that I'm interested in).
I don't think this overwhelming preference is lamentable, really: the very undemanding gentleness of the pop persona in microhouse is a very large part of its charm, its retiring nature eminently suited to a style of dance where the tension between songfulness and trackiness remains, and should remain, a going concern. But this very constriction of possibilities inevitably raises the question: is such a formulation an essential component of microhouse's engagement with pop? If the music sought to prioritise the personality of the singer, would it remain microhouse, or would it become something else?
That Princess Him's album More Equal Than Others seems to be grouped in with stuff like Peaches suggests that, indeed, the decision to prioritise the persona of the singer necessarily places this outside the parameters of microhouse. The Peaches comparison is perhaps not so unfair: the thick and clunky electro-flavoured house grooves which the duo favour actually remind me more of a middle ground between Playhouse and Areal, but using a very broad lens one might be forgiven for thinking they edge toward "Set It Off" territory. And yes, the female vocalist (Barca) is strident and often brazenly sexy, and she has a song called "Madonna" which starts of with shouting and ends with an interpolation of "Express Yourself" and it's all very blank postmodern innit? But the point of convergance between Princess Him and Peaches for me is actually the same point where they separate: Peaches is so focused in on personality and statement that it's the music which becomes mere cipher; sometimes I suspect that she's so determinedly lo-fi and beatboxy because to try harder would be to totally miss her own point. With Princess Him, there's an uneasy tension between the music and the persona, with both trying to grab your attention simultaneously, to say, "I am the center, the rest is just background detail."
This uneasiness, this inbetweenness, makes Princess Him oddly uncomfortable listening, and it took me a long time to decide whether I liked this album or not, whether in fact I should like it. Was what it was doing something I could broadly agree with or tolerate? I'm so used to the deferential nature of microhouse vocals that the stridency of the vocals seemed somehow inappropriate and unseemly, setting off unfortunate memories of Kosheen post-"Hide U" (a classic example of a misguided tipping of the scales towards personality and away from groove). And at the album's weakest moments (the overly serious closer "Single Action" for example) this may indeed be the closest reference point, but otherwise this was mostly an overreaction on my part, a reaction against the difficulty of pinpointing exactly what the singer was trying to do. In general I'd place her at a midpoint between early-Moloko and Curve's Toni Halliday, and she embodies a lot of the unpredictability that such an equation implies, moving from saucy to ethereal to angry to sly with an uncalculated randomness a world away from microhouse's typically strict and subtle stylisation. And I recognise that such a description could easily be categorised as glowing, but instead, perhaps because of the context, the performances struck me as undisciplined more than anything else.
But I kept listening, even as I wondered whether I liked the songs I was listening to. By now I've probably listened to this more than any other release from this year, which surely counts for something. A lot, perhaps most of my loyalty has resulted from the music, which is frequently excellent: I tossed off that Playhouse-meets-Areal comparison before, but you know that this is exactly the sort of thing I get all unnecessarily hot and bothered about. There's a satisfying bottom-heaviness to most of the grooves here, from the lurching and splurting disco of "Again" to the more urgent electro whines of "C'mon" and "Madonna" to almost Underworld-ish techno throb of "Underwater Kissing". It's not surprising that producer Lizer M shines most obviously when Barca takes a turn on the bench, and the three instrumental tracks are among the album's highlights: "Not Rock" in particular is the kind of all-embracing dance record you could imagine James Murphy making if he'd grown up in Berlin and never liked rock (who knows what relevance the title has in this regard), uniting stuttery early-nineties house-pop with apocalyptic acid peals and a chorus in the form of the most winsome, cute little electro riff ever (imagine an electro riff trying to be a lap dog). This is typical of his ADD-afflicted production approach, apt to pull in different directions simultaneously like siamese twins with no co-ordination.
This unstable identity is perhaps why the fusion of his grooves with Barca's songs finally does seem to work - at the end of the day any strict genre setting for either would seem arbitrary and confining. The Toni Halliday/Moloko analogies can be stretched far enough to suggest that twelve years ago the duo could have easily been making guitar rock, and six years ago just as easily trip-hop, and the record would be quite similar in feel. That said, I'm glad that they've decided to make More Equal Than Others now, with the sonic setting they've chosen: when it all comes together, as it does on the marvellous first single "Gone", it's difficult to imagine them doing anything else quite so successfully. "Gone" is house-pop par excellence, another lobby into the void stretching out beyond Cassius's "The Sound of Violence" marked "where to now for French house?" That record's answer was to emphasise the imbalances in what was by that point a very tried and tested sound. What's thrilling about "The Sound of Violence" is the yawning chasms between the shimmering guitar licks and that deep and deadly bassline. "Gone" edges out even further: the bass resembling the sluggish movements of a water-submerged and slumbering dinosaur, the all-encompassing rumblings of tectonic plate shifts; the disco guitar riffs work themselves into a dazzling coked-up frenzy; the xylophones and strings and chimes blur into an amorphous glow of palatial over-satiation, flushed with a fleshy pinkness. Meanwhile Barca is surprisingly straightforward and by-the-books in her story of irrational sexual desire: "When your gone I like the way you're walking, I like the way you act, I like the way you touch yourself. It's your smell that paralyse me, makes me forget myself." But if Princess Him are more macro than micro, it still shouldn't come as a surprise that what absolutely makes "Gone" their best song by a mile is a tiny little quirk in the groove, a whipcrack snare lashing out too soon in every fourth bar like a sudden foreshadowing of climax. A trick learnt from a dozen microhouse minimalists, it effortlessly propels "Gone" beyond sleekly appealing post-Frech House into a Frankenstein's Monster of brazen sexuality. Despite all the emoting on display, stylisation wins the day once again.
I sympathise with Gareth re Remarc's deification - it's not that the guy isn't deserving (far from it) but you have to wonder, "why him in particular?" At least with all of jungle's other over-elevated heroes you can kinda see why they were singled out by an auteur-hungry press, but by celebrating Remarc's anonymous genius we're sort of perpetuating a fetishistic contradiction - "I know that this sort of jungle wasn't about auteurs, but..." As Gareth notes, what might be more useful would be compilations that consciously cherrypick the excellent but now-forgotten tracks from any number of producers, many of whom were often only responsible for one or two classic tracks (such is the logic of "scenius" - how many of my favourite 2-step tracks and remixes came from soon-to-be-forgotten mercenaries? Heaps! Remind me to do a special on the now-forgotten classics of 2-step at some stage).
I was thinking of Gareth when I picked up a '94 jungle comp the other day - Strictly Hardcore Records Presents Jungle Soundclash 1 - primarily because it's from Romford, Essex. You don't hear much about Strictly Hardcore these days, and about all that I've been able to gather is that they acted as a cd compiler for feeder labels like 3rd Party/Ibiza (any info here would be appreciated!) but they evidently banged out a lot of cd compilations a lot earlier than almost anyone else, and this one at least is fantasitc. In fact it's right up there with some of my other personal favourites: Grooverider Presents Hardstep Selection II, History of Hardcore Part 2 etc. etc. Most of the tracks are unknown to me even my name (the Generation Ecstasy discography was largely silent as well), so I'm not sure about whether this represents a particular scene or collective of producers, but what unites most of these tracks is an astonishing focus on polyrhythmic density. If I've said previously that the complexity of mash-ups can be overrated sometimes, I should clarify my position: complex breakbeat arrangements are certainly not essential to crafting a great jungle track. Having said that, of the tunes from '94 - far and way my favourite year for jungle - my favourites are invariably incredibly overstuffed with rhythmic detail. I guess I'd argue that multi-accented polyrhythmic arrangements are one technique by which you can achieve the primary diachronic function of jungle ("rhythmic danger"), and that this technique had a synchronic dominance and superiority in '94 - perhaps not coincidentally also the moment when rhythmic danger was most universally preferenced and celebrated by producers.
Anyway, I count several absolute hands down classic tracks here: the opening A-Sides track "My Mind" (not the Noise Factory track of the same name) is one of those kinda scary epic tracks that Moby attempted to homage with "Unloved Symphony": eerie submerged synthesiser sighs, malevolently glowing bass and an astonishing, violently ricocheting groove of tiny but impossibly sharp beat shards, like a hundred bullets fired inside a steel room. Urban Jungle's "Back in the Daze" is a lovely vocal track that delineates perfectly the pre-"Inner City Life" function of female vocals in jungle: not to facilitate an epic artistic statement but to let the party simmer down a bit, get some girls singing on the dancefloor and boost the good vibes (see the Urban Takeover mix of "Wishing on a Star", and what's that great track that's based around Chaka Khan's "Sweet Thing" again?). I love this sort of stuff not least because it reminds me of how open and all-embracing jungle once was or maybe could have been - in alternate history UK garage didn't need to happen; there's no reason why "feminine pressure" couldn't have found ample expression in jungle had the conditions allowed for it. Crucially, not only is "Back in the Daze" sweet and lush, it also has a wonderfully crisp juddering groove to rival any hardstep or jump-up track, and the way the tune oscillates between soothing vocal sessions and breakbeat onslaughts perfectly captures the sweet'n'sour vibe I'm trying to isolate here (funny too how the function of these tunes seems to have been almost exactly replicated by grimette stuff like Terra Danja's "So Sure").
Closer to the bad vibes corner there's the jittery post-darkcore of Noise Factory's "The Future" and especially Uncle 22's "Six Million Ways To Die", whose menacing atmospherics and almost mechanical grooves marks it out as almost proto-techstep. Even better is Dub Wize's "Jungle Techno (Exclusive VIP Mix)" which combines orchestral fanfare, insane timestretched beats and burbling synthesiser backdrops in a manner that simultaneously reminds me of Acen, A Guy Called Gerald and even drill&bass, and yet despite the last reference point the groove is utterly physically compulsive. The beats seem to writhe like an octopus thrashing its limbs, little rhythmic filligrees flying out in all directions in a frenzied gymnastic display. It sounds so distinct, so idiosyncratic, and yet its title is so obstinately generic! If anything demonstrates jungle's anti-auteurist tendency towards casual, even unwitting brilliance, this is it.
"Jungle Techno" may be my favourite track on the album, but if it's not then the honour goes to Radical Sound's "What Is Love (Exclusive VIP Mix)". Compared to the former track's kitchen sink maximalism, "What Is Love" is a tad more subtle, but it likewise shares that wilful disregard for stylistic demarcations or moods, happily taking in moments of black menace and synth-laden existential crisis alongside sparkling joyful effervescence (Foul Play-brand squiggly little synth eruptions) and almost rueful-sounding reggae breakdowns. Most of all though this track needs to be heard for its mindblowing central groove, a murderous procession of deadly booming kicks and stuttering snares that should be the soundtrack for one of those particularly complex magical combination moves in streetfighter-style arcade games. I'm hardpressed to think of many jungle tracks with such a flat-out amazing rhythmic construction, a groove that is as demolishing as it is anthemic as it is virtuoso. Unfortunately there are no writing credits on the comp (and the net is failing me something shocking), but with the frequent samples of the phrase "dubwise" in the latter track, I wouldn't be surprised if both "Jungle Techno" and "What Is Love" were by the same producer; if so, (s)he'll have earned a place in my (yes, very fetishistic) personal pantheon. And not only does (s)he not have a retrospective CD out - I don't even know the producer's name!