Plugged In

In the beginning, Perry Farrell envisioned Lollapalooza, an event he helped create, as a traveling circus that would expose just-outside-the-mainstream styles to the public at large. A few seasons later, this goal had been largely forgotten: Last year's disastrous tour, headlined by Metallica (not exactly an obscure cult group) and co-starring a slew of practically interchangeable guitar acts, is a case in point. But with Farrell back aboard for this year's edition, Lollapalooza '97, which visits Fiddler's Green on Sunday, August 10, is attempting to revisit the cutting edge by providing the biggest forum yet for what has been designated by the music industry as the Next Big Thing--electronica.

That's not to say that the Lollapalooza bill is pure techno. The main-stage lineup includes Tool, James, Snoop Doggy Dogg, and Julian and Damian Marley and the Uprising Band, none of whom would turn many heads at a rave. But joining them are Tricky, a critically acclaimed trip-hop innovator, and the Prodigy, a British collective whose third full-length platter, The Fat of the Land, recently entered the Billboard sales charts at number one. The latter achievement is the clearest indication yet that electronic music is making inroads with the American public and not just with the suits at record companies. However, this success has not come without several notable compromises. When the Prodigy first emerged in the early Nineties, bandmembers Leeroy Thornhill, Maxim, Liam Howlett and Keith Flint made pure dance music and dressed in threads that seemed to have been purchased at New Kids on the Block R Us. But the quartet subsequently was given a more outrageous makeover, both visually (note Flint's newly pierced nose and colored hair) and musically. "Firestarter" and "Breathe," the lead singles from Fat, have as much in common with the industrial sounds of Marilyn Manson as they do with the Prodigy's previous work, while new tracks such as "Diesel Power" and "Serial Thrilla" mimic traditional rock-and-roll song structure associated with Live, Stone Temple Pilots and other stars in decline. The new album does not completely reject the past--"Narayan" and "Climbatize" still resonate with the Prodigy's trademark techno tinkerings and swirling keyboard riffs--but it shows that Flint and company are just as interested in crossing over to the masses as they are in having the masses cross over to them.

As a result, Fat is not an especially good way for people unfamiliar with modern dance sounds to learn what they're all about. That's why I've assembled the following alphabetical roster of eleven CDs designed to fill you in on the electronica movement. All of them are easily accessible and, in my opinion, absolutely vital to understanding where the music's been and where it's going. Take some notes, Perry; this primer will help you get ready for next year.

Aphex Twin
Selected Ambient Works 85-92
(R&S, 1992)

Richard D. James, 25, has released his music under a variety of names, but he's been less shy than most electronica artists about hyping his own, Mozart-esque abilities. Fortunately, Selected Ambient Works, which represents his teenage output, is deserving of the hype. Poetically titled cuts like "Xtal," "Pulsewidth" and "Delphium," generated in large part by equipment James builds himself in his Cornish hideaway, reveal his cunning talent for shaping rhythm beds that make a body lean more toward the armchair than the dance floor. As for his meandering keyboards, which are occasionally sprinkled with samples from David Bowie, Robin Williams and Willy Wonka, they recall the glory days of Brian Eno even as they maintain their distinctiveness. The thumping "Heliosphan" is among the most sublime and majestic pieces in the electronica oeuvre, surpassing even James's early techno anthem "Analogue Bubblebath."

The Art of Noise
Daft (Blessed Are the Noisemakers)
(Zang Tuum Tumb/Warner Bros., 1983)

Gary Langan, Anne Dudley and J.J. Jeczalik (supplemented by producer Trevor Horn) changed the face of pop music when they dropped this percussive, sample-heavy foray into cabaret/disco/whatever onto the early-Eighties London dance scene. Daft--which compiles the album (Who's Afraid of) The Art of Noise? and the EPs Into Battle and Moments in Love--finds the trio successfully integrating found sounds, taped broadcasts, dissonant rhythms and friendly dada madness into an entirely fascinating package. "Beat Box (Diversion 1)" and "Close (to the Edit)," which fared as well on American radio as they did in the clubs, still sound fresh today, while "How to Kill" and "Bright Noise" sport altered vocals, threatening beats and scratching techniques that continue to inspire contemporary pop groups. Dudley went on to work with the Pet Shop Boys, Langan collaborated with P.I.L., Horn made hits for acts like Yes and Seal, and Jeczalik formed a new group, Art of Silence. But none of them on their own have reached the heights they hit together as the Art of Noise.  

Brian Eno
The Shutov Assembly
(Opal/Warner Bros., 1992)

Like his European compatriots in Kraftwerk, Roxy Music survivor Brian Eno has been acknowledged as one of the godfathers of electronica. His ambient experiments, which found him constructing musical landscapes and tonal melodies designed to enhance the listener's environment rather than to attract his or her direct attention, were years ahead of their time. But while early works like Discreet Music, Another Green World and Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks are rightfully recognized as masterpieces, The Shutov Assembly, a collection of Eighties work, serves as a better introduction to Eno's universe. "Ikebukuro" provides sixteen minutes of swooping sonics that invite meditation, the creepy "Markgraph" demonstrates how much more interesting new-age music would be if it were infused with a sense of evil, and "Innocenti" slows down a birdsong-like representation of happiness to the speed of sleep. Eno may have helped U2 become the biggest rock group on the planet, but Assembly argues that his own work is even more intriguing.

The Future Sound of London
(Virgin/Astralwerks/Caroline, 1994)

Future Sound has altered its trajectory at every stage of its career: The techno-classic sound of the group's initial salvo, Accelerator, is miles away from the dangerous cacophony of its most recent release, Dead Cities. But the conglomerate's best album to date is the double-CD whammy of Lifeforms, an ambient/techno piece whose warmth and fuzziness is shot through with an undercurrent of dismay provided by chilling samples and eerie programming. Primary collaborators Gary Cobain and Brian Dougans augment their own talent base with contributions from electronica pioneers Robert Fripp and Klaus Schulze, but the project is still their baby. Captivating rhythms litter the nineteen tracks on Lifeforms, which more closely resembles a conceptual diptych than a beat-crazy electronica record. A favorite in chill rooms and bedrooms from Berlin to San Francisco.

The Mix
(Elektra, 1991)

Germany's Kraftwerk has not released an album of new material in over a decade, but that doesn't mean its figurative children have forgotten it: A rare concert appearance at this year's Tribal Gathering in the U.K. found the scene's luminaries humbly paying homage to what is arguably the most influential electronic dance band of all time. Kraftwerk emerged in the early Seventies with Autobahn, which established an electronica tradition of using the technology of contemporary life for compositional subject matter. This approach dominates The Mix, a de facto best-of collection featuring remixes of the group's greatest singles by Ralf HYtter, Florian Schneider and Fritz Hilpert. Monumental tracks like "Trans Europe Express," "Homecomputer" and "The Robots" combine minimalist keyboard arrangements and multilingual talk-speak with assembly-line disco rhythms generated by computers and sequencers. One listen and you'll understand how much hip-hop, new wave, electro and other genres have benefited from Kraftwerk's radical take on sound.

The Orb
(Big Life/Mercury, 1992)

Former Eno office boy Dr. Alex Paterson first turned heads in the late Eighties with a series of radical DJ sets: Mixing environmental tapes culled from his former boss's stash with the latest acid-house beats, he crafted a sound that reached full bloom with U.F.Orb. In its full-length mix, "Blue Room," the platter's first single, is forty minutes long, but it never gets boring thanks to vocalist Aisha, whose gossamer wings lift a pulsating beat, dubbed-out programming riffs, throbbing bass lines courtesy of Jah Wobble, and the contributions of Steve Hillage and System 7's Miquette Giraudy. The Orb albums that followed, as well as tangents like Auntie Aubrey's Excursions Beyond the Call of Duty: The Orb Remix Project, have been consistently beguiling, and Patterson and his revolving crew also deserve plaudits for bridging the gap between clubs and concert halls with tours that successfully translate its studio hodgepodges to a live setting. But if you're just starting out, U.F.Orb is the place to do it.

In Sides
(Internal/FFRR, 1996)

Since Orbital has released four full-lengths that lack major flaws of any kind, it's difficult to decide which of its offerings is the most indispensable. But you can't go wrong with In Sides, a platter that finds the brothers Hartnoll mutating the latest techno beats into something altogether more organic. "The Box," which utilizes harpsichords and mallet percussion atop four-to-the-floor programmed drums, is extremely memorable, "Dwr Budr" uses shimmering keyboards and swaying vocals to achieve a dreamy melancholy characteristic of Orbital's work, and "The Girl With the Sun in Her Head" is notable for both its beauty and the circumstances of its recording: It was cut using electricity from CYRUS, Greenpeace's mobile solar generator. Such community gestures are as important to habitues of the electronica scene as they were to Sixties hippies, which is why Orbital harvests as much praise for the intelligence of its politics as it does for the intelligence of its music.  

The Prodigy
(XL Recordings/Elektra, 1992)

The Prodigy's brilliant debut remains eminently listenable--and there's no denying its impact on Nineties electronic-dance music as a whole. The break-beat rhythms and bouncing vocal samples on Experience (written, produced, engineered and recorded by Liam Howlett) served as the blueprints for a host of copycat acts. Moreover, the disc contains snippets of trip-hop and drum-and-bass that predate their wider circulation by years. Popular club cuts like "Charly (Trip Into Drum and Bass Version)" and "Everybody in the Place (155 and Rising)" exhibit the rapid loops and sketchy keyboards that obsessed DJs and after-hours dancers of the period. But while the Prodigy's competitors countered with even faster rhythms and more BPMs, they could never match the act's production finesse. A techno landmark.

Saint Etienne
Fox Base Alpha
(Warner Bros., 1991)

"Only Love Can Break Your Heart", a beat-laden cover of a Neil Young favorite, catapulted Saint Etienne to global prominence. But it was on Fox Base Alpha, a follow-up full-length, that thoroughly British instrumentalists Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs and angel-voiced chanteuse Sarah Cracknell made their biggest contribution: By melding Nineties dance loops with Sixties camp, they revolutionized electro-pop. "She's the One" and "Kiss and Make Up" overflow with chirpy irony, subtle sampling and boom-chicka-boom rhythms borrowed from the Pet Shop Boys, while "Spring" and "Nothing Can Stop Us" bear Burt Bacharach's stamp. Because of the diminishing commercial returns of its last two studio albums, Saint Etienne is currently on hiatus, but the band should not be written off. Not many long-players appeal equally to suburban housewives and club DJs the way Fox Base Alpha does.

Spring Heel Jack
68 Million Shades
(Trade 2/Island, 1996)

If anyone can break drum-and-bass music in America, it's Spring Heel Jack's Coxon and Wales. After all, 68 Million Shades exhibits enough rhythm fluxes to satisfy purists even as it demonstrates more traditional songwriting virtues. "Take 1" and "Roger Tessier," to name only two, shine with the spirit of early techno and Eighties electro without simply mimicking these styles. Like most jungle-music practitioners, Coxon and Wales generally eschew vocals, but they compensate with rhythmic bursts and keyboard spreads that are almost as entertaining as the wailing vocals of house-music divas (and considerably less grating over the long haul). This still may not be enough to convince rock fans to take a chance on Spring Heel Jack. But then again, remaining in the underground may turn out to be the duo's saving grace.

(Island, 1995)

Tricky is to Massive Attack what Bjsrk was to the Sugarcubes: a bandmember who soon outclassed the band. Maxinquaye was his coming-out party, a radical aural feast overflowing with intense lyrics, indelible vocalizing, adventurous songwriting and production that codified trip-hop. Tricky is not infallible; he experienced a sophomore slump with Nearly God, a poorly conceived effort overloaded with appearances by famous pop stars eager to bask in his glow. However, last year's Pre-Millennium Tension almost made up for this stumble, suggesting that Tricky may actually be able to live up to his overheated press. With luck, electronica may be able to do the same.

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