Thursday, June 21, 2007

Rolling 10: Von Südenfed - Tromatic Reflexxions

First, let's go back.

I wouldn't have discovered Mark E. Smith nor The Fall when I did if it weren't for Coldcut.

Coldcut - What's That Noise? - (1989)

While I had certainly read a lot about this band called The Fall in many of my favorite 'alternative' rags while in late high school (i.e. Alternative Press, B-Side, Spin, et al), I would, without hesitance, purchase anything related to the top names of dance and acid house from the UK -- namely Bomb The Bass, S'Express, and Coldcut. These three groups formed the holy triangle of "DANCE" for me at the time. Sure, I was seeking dance music from many other avenues, be it hip hop, more mainstream styles, or "Wax Trax!" music aka industrial dance music. However, what was going on in the UK during the "Summer Of Love '89" -- a movement mainly revolving around drugs, samples, and a large racket using this 303 thing -- was something new and exciting to me.

Coldcut's debut album What's That Noise? first sold me on Mark E. Smith:

Mark E. Smith stood out, to put it mildly, on a highly varying dance record that also featured guests vocalists Lisa Stansfield, Junior Reed, Yazz on the UK Big Life edition of the album, and Queen Latifah on the U.S. Tommy Boy release. Thankfully his contribution fronted the most raw and dirty 303'ed slammer on the disc, "(I'm) In Deep." I was initially struck by the quasi beat poetry recited by Smith that began the track, noting the delayed echoed layers behind him. I was subsequently floored when the beat and bass came in with Mark E. snarling through distortion emitting these extended alien vowels that were not part of the standard Roman 5. I knew I was hearing a vocalist not quite like any other I heard. I initially tried to justify it as something related to industrial dance music. But no, that was wrong. Industrial vocals are too dependent on manic, aggressive theatre. This was not the sound of a man trying to showboat or care for an audience. There was something genuine about this strange, strange voice beckoning throughout the acid jam. It wasn't benelovent at all. To be honest, I had no idea how to parse him. From one angle, he sounded like an alien beat poet. From another angle, he sounded like -- well -- a bitter drag queen. I had seen pictures of Mark E. Smith to know he didn't look nor dress like a woman, but he certainly wasn't far removed from the more caustic side of Neo-Burlesque, aurally. The song builded and builded until the very end, as the volume increased while the tonal of the 303 heavily modulated out of tune, spinning into this dizzying vortex -- STOP!

"(I'm) In Deep" changed the way I thought about dance music. I just hadn't realized it yet, nor would I for a long while. (Listening to this now, this track is frighteningly foreshadowing of much of LCD Soundsystem, isn't it? I say this being a big fan of James Murphy's work.)

Soon after, I would immediately purchase an album by The Fall just because of this song. I chose This Nation's Saving Grace from 1985, due to a random magazine recommendation I had seen around the time. It was the perfect choice. I was now completely sold on The Fall.

This Nation's Saving Grace went all over the place, but one thing that each song had was danceability -- not at all in the same way as Coldcut or S'Express, though. There's something hip shaking in every track, from "Bombast" to "L.A." to "Gut Of The Quantifier." It's a bit surprising The Fall's groove factor is just barely talked about. Granted, when Mark E. Smith is your frontman, all else will be second fiddle in discussion. But one would wonder, at some point, about analyzing the appeal of The Fall besides Mark E. Smith and some occasional inventive guitar work and songwriting. Since "Repetition", The Fall has been a dance band -- a highly unorthodox one, granted, but one of the longest running ones. But how else does any of the twenty thousand Fall compilations or albums available retain its drive and quality?


D.O.S.E. - "Plug Myself In" featuring Mark E. Smith - (1996)

By now, I was completely schooled on The Fall, and about almost everything else underground rock related, now that I had become involved in college radio. I had everything from Live At The Witch Trials to Cerebral Caustic inclusive. Admittedly, I would pick up anything involving Mark E. Smith just because it was my duty as a *cough* hip college radio DJ to do so. I found a pair of CD-singles in a clearance section for a D.O.S.E./Mark E. Smith collaboration, "Plug Myself In", at a nearby Tower Records soon after they were released. (The single was released as 12 remixes split between two separate CD-singles on Coliseum Recordings.) I never listened to either until several years later because I was overloaded with music at the time.

One day, in 1999, I went through my 'Neglected' pile, had a listen to "Plug Myself In", and was floored. I listened to all these remixes non-stop for a week. Here are two of these mixes -- the main single mix, and a faster tempo techno breakbeat remix.

D.O.S.E., aka Dodo Bassburger, is mainly known for this single. (Curiously enough, the "Dodo Bassburger Escariot Mix" is credited to one S Spencer.) One more single, sans cameo, was released two years later, as were some remixes, and that's it. As far as I know, Dodo Bassburger has nothing to do with Dodo Nkishi, the soon-to-be third member, vocalist, and drummer of, then, pioneering German electronic group called Mouse On Mars -- who are Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma at base.

Musically, "Plug Myself In" doesn't break ground as "(I'm) In Deep" does, in retrospect. The main single is pretty much a peer of mid-tempo swarthy techno-funk a la Prodigy's "Poison", Future Sound Of London, LFO circa Advance, or much of Meat Beat Manifesto's 90's output.

Mark E. Smith sounds far more relaxed, bored, or torn here -- Pinteresque, perhaps. The juxtaposition greatly enhances the song. During the beatless bridge, when the chilling biohazard alarm loop beckons, Mark E. Smith belts out "A loud lilac proposed coloured droplets - and sweet molasses." Wha-huh? Without much of a pause, Mark E. then yells out call-and-response via words I never knew existed. Then come the layered rolling breakbeats, and the bass tone changes -- reversing the rotation of the song, giving the song yet a new thrill while Mark E. continues to ponder why he can't seem to plug himself in.

At this point in rock history, a Mark E. Smith cameo must have as much prestige and unpredictability as a Lee "Scratch" Perry cameo. If one is lucky enough to get either Perry or Smith in the studio, one has to be very lucky, let the singer do his thing, be satisfied with what he or she is able to record, then find a way to cut up the results to fit the final product, then make sure the singer approves it. Or at least, this is how my naive obsequious perspective projects a session with Lee Perry or Mark E. Smith.


Despite a brief low point for Mark E. in 1998, involving a derailed tour in New York alongside acrimony with then keyboardist Julia Nagle, he and The Fall continued to persevere, and have very recently enjoyed a renewed success that may match that of their mid 80s period.

In 2005, Mark E. Smith cameo'd on a Mouse On Mars 12" single, "Wipe That Sound", the original version which appears on the album Radical Connector, released in 2004. The collaboration was a complete disappointment -- in comparison to Mark E.'s previous electronic dance cameos, compared to anything Mouse On Mars did, and compared to even the least interesting moments from The Fall. Mark E. sounded happy for once, but he sounded really drunk. This version of "Wipe That Sound" just dragged -- painfully. Unlike the Dodo sung version on the album, this one lacked any funk, drive, or anything memorable. I listened to it once, and never wanted to hear it again.


Von Südenfed - Tromatic Reflexxions - (2007)

Upon hearing of a full album collaboration between Mouse On Mars and Mark E. Smith - titled "Von Südenfed", I was horrified. The "Wipe That Sound" experiment was a failure in my humble opinion. Also, while the album wasn't bad, Mouse On Mars's 2006 effort Varcharz didn't offer anything the previous albums didn't already.

Then I saw this video:

[Von Südenfed "Fledermaus Can't Get It" video - Mouse On Mars/Mark E. Smith collaboration]

Jaw, floor, drop, drool.

My brain was split between deciding how such a 180-degree flip in quality for a Mouse On Mars/Mark E. Smith song could have been possible, and wondering if the drag queens in the video were actually the three musicians or not! I still regularly watch this video.

"Fledermaus Can't Get It" fulfills everything for me today what "(I'm) In Deep" did for me in 1989. Mark E. Smith never sounded like he was having more fun in his life! least since 1990's Extricate, or maybe since "(I'm) In Deep." Thanks to this video, and the back cover of the album, Mark E. Smith's presence now fulfills that Neo-Burlesque quality I initially heard, but doubles down! (That is him as the blond and brunette in the video with denture implants, right? Maybe it's best if I don't know.) Most importantly, The Mouse On Mars guys deliver their most slamming dance song since the singles of their peak album from 2000, Niun Niggung. This is the first song featuring a very prominent Mark E. on vocals that can be played at dance clubs globally since the 90s. This is striking, given that I doubt anyone could decipher any of the words other than "can't", "get", or "it."

Tromatic Reflexxions is also the first full length offering featuring Mark E. Smith in an electronic dance context. There's much greatness to be found on this album, each track being quite distinct from another. Here are a few more of them:

  • Von Südenfed - "Flooded" [4:46 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2007

  • "Flooded" is my guess for Von Südenfed's second single, after "Fledermaus Can't Get It." It would more of a novelty single with a more broken techno beat. However, Mark E. is hilarious here, asserting his DJ bravado throughout the song, even giving Sven Väth a direct throwdown. "I flooded the club." Don't be surprised if you hear this meme started or resurrected by the least modest of international disc jockeys.

  • Von Südenfed - "The Rhinohead" [4:16 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2007

  • Maybe I'm wrong. Perhaps this will be the second single. It would be for completely different reasons than "Flooded." This is less dancey in a club context, and more of a sweet rockin' head-bobber, featuring live drums. While nothing on this album resembles a Fall song, this song comes the closest to sounding like a catchier one.

  • Von Südenfed - "Serious Brainskin" [3:51 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2007

  • Probably the most gutteral song on the album. If you wanted to make a grime milkshake with a Mark E. Smith chaser, here you go. Even here, there's a catchy three-note chorus -- granted played via an extremely gritty bass synth. The pop factor of this album is very subtle but sheds more and more upon each listen.

  • Von Südenfed - "The Young The Faceless And The Codes" [4:32 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2007

  • This is the most interesting track on the album, and my favorite. It's a mid-tempo 4/4 acid funk Tilt-A-Whirl featuring a heavily chopped, re-processed, and cloned Mark E. -- until halfway through the song, when the lone loose bass synth signals another one-two punch of a catchy chorus, featuring Smith at his most self-harmonizing... which isn't saying too much, but it's unprecedented for the man -- really. Don't forget the moral of the song, which Smith utters in a lower voice under the heavy influence of echo.

    "The Young The Faceless And The Codes" is a highlight for both Mouse On Mars and Mark E. Smith.

And this is just half of the album, kids! There's even more variety thereafter. The presence of acoustic guitar creeps in as the album draws to a close. And to even right the wrong from two years prior, they re-record that version of "Wipe That Sound" -- retitled "That Sound Wiped" -- in a superior fashion. Mark E. Smith is alive and well this time on the track, and they give more space to him, lowering the accompaniment most of the time.


When I mentioned that it took me while to 'get' "(I'm) In Deep" by Coldcut, I really meant a looong while. In fact, it was just until the release of this Von Südenfed album that made me realize how "(I'm) In Deep" changed me, and hence why I make the decisions I've made since in purchasing electronic dance music: the inexplicability, the surprise, WTF, etc. The difference between just any dance track and that classic dance track to me is my lack of ability to understand why the producers of the latter did what they/he/she did. The best tracks are the ones that are fueled rhythmic non-sequitirs.

I'll grant this isn't an original idea at all. Surprise has long been a known pop or dance music secret. It's effective on a micro or macro level. "Macarena" is the best example of a cultural non-sequitir dance hit on a macro level. On a micro level, the involvement of Mark E. Smith in dance music is a great example as far as providing that juxtaposition with its immediate peers at the time, and its often reliable success in standing out in the context of a mix -- or a history.


There's no mistaking how much I'm feeling this record. You could probably guess where I'd place this, at least for now.

Top 10 of 2007 so far...

1. Von Südenfed - Tromatic Reflexxions
2. LCD Soundsystem - Sound Of Silver
3. Monstrance - Monstrance

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Blogger Celebritymurderparty said...

Stumbled on this whilst looking for an mp3 of the D.o.s.e. track. D.o.s.e. Is Kier Stewart who is a partner in Inch Studios in Manchester, and was briefly a member of the fall. He's now doing work with Vini Reilly, as well as his own stuff.

I was on a sound recording course with Kier in the mid 90's and i remember him playing me the demo of this track during a recording session in Whalley Range. At the time this didn't have Mark E Smith's vocals on it......

9:05 AM  

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