When Machines Exceed Human Intelligence
US: 3 Mar 2009
UK: 2 Feb 2009
Internet release date: 2 Feb 2009
J Dilla’s posthumous reputation continues to grow, as it seems every other hot new beat-maker takes influence from James Yancey and his eclectic productions. At the core, Dilla was a hip-hop artist, but, befitting a producer from Detroit, he took influence from soul and techno, two very different genres that both developed in the Motor City. This isn’t to say that “techno soul” is an oxymoronic concept. The best classic productions from the likes of Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson (collectively known as the “Belleville Three,” after the suburb from whence they came) evoke undeniably human emotion through rigidly programmed percussion and lush, decaying synthesizer patches.
As part of its second wind of getting back into new and interesting electronic artists, Warp brought us Flying Lotus’ Los Angeles, an album which straddled the tech-hop line in fine form. If it was a bit overlong and dull in passages, LA also showed FlyLo as a promising young producer, having grown immensely from his first album, 1983, to embrace a chunky stew of a sound, steeped in ambience. Coming from more of a techno perspective is When Machines Exceed Human Intelligence, the debut full-length from Harmonic 313, a project of downtempo ambient veteran Mark Pritchard, best known for his role in Global Communication, whose 76:14 (1994) remains a high mark for ambient techno. Machines is not just a fantastic album – easily the best work Pritchard has produced since Global Communication – it’s also an early contender for album of the year, sitting timelessly aside touchstone works from Dilla, Boards of Canada, and every decent techno producer from the first and second wave of Detroit.
Harmonic 33, Mark Pritchard’s predecessor project to Harmonic 313, focused on mellotron and retro synth bubbles with an antiquity that felt like the soundtrack to a surreal noir film. “Word Problems” begins with a computerized voice correcting input of Harmonic 33, before launching into speak-and-spell laden bleep-hop that firmly establishes this new iteration of Harmonic, with the refrain, “H-A-R-M-O-N-I-C / 313 / that’s correct!” The stiff robot delivery is infectious, the closest thing Pritchard has come to writing a sing-along banger. Having originally appeared on EP 1, the debut EP from the 313 project, it sounded like an instrumental beat just begging for the right MC to rip it. While we do get MCs on this record, Phat Kat and Elzhi drop some less-than-inspirational rhymes on “Battlestar.” Elzhi is decently gifted, but hearing him boast about “who fucks lady luck” threatens to throw Harmonic 313 in with the fray of abominable neon electro-house bands trying it out with mediocre braggart MCs (looking at you, MSTRKRFT and NORE), and Pritchard is much more than that. Luckily, it’s one weak moment, and, save for a creamy cameo from Steve Spacek on “Falling Away,” the rest of Machines is dedicated to Pritchard’s mad solo genius.
While EP 1 and the recently-released Dirtbox EP featured blunt beats and space-age, buzzing synths, Machines introduces a more cerebral, melancholy vibe with tracks like “Köln” and “Galag-A,” both of which have faded-photograph synth patches that sound plucked from Boards of Canada. These sad pads and chimes are the first plausible link to suggest that the same mind is behind both Harmonic 33 and 313. True to his Global Communication reputation, Pritchard is a master of wringing timeless emotion from his synthesis. Similar to how Global Communication’s “Ob-Selon Mi-Nos” continues to evoke wonder and mystery in the fresh ears that hear it over a decade later, “Galag-A” packs intense feelings into its three and a half minutes, and seems to appropriately score whatever mood I’m in when it clicks on.
The fascination with outdated (but too unique to be obsolete) technology continues with “Cyclotron C64 SID”, a mess of low-bitrate squeals and rumbles that derives its title from the SID chip inside the antique Commodore 64 computer, which has found new popularity among music-makers for the unique and eccentric sounds it produces. The original “Cyclotron”, meanwhile, is the best-executed example of the combination of techno and hip-hop that Pritchard strives for, for much of the record. I could list more highlights – check out closer “Quadrant 3” for its epic shuffle – but essentially, every song here that isn’t “Battlestar” is a home run. Even the shorter interludes actually add to the release, establishing a narrative of the effect of technology and music.
While the name Harmonic 313 functions as a sequel to Harmonic 33, it’s also a reference to the area code of Detroit, a number that serves as a reference point for true techno heads. “Cyclotron” might be named after a particle accelerator, but it also makes one think of Cybotron, the proto-techno collaboration between Juan Atkins (later Model 500) and Rick Davies, whose futuristic lingo (Davies referred to Detroit as “the grid”) bears a clear influence on Pritchard’s soundscapes. Like J Dilla, though, Pritchard takes everything in and spits out a hybrid that manages to sound greater than the sum of its parts, unquestionably electronic yet undeniably sequenced and forged by human hands. And Like Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, and every Detroit techno innovator before him, Pritchard sees the negative and positive possibilities of life run by technology. You get robot overlords, but also mesmerizing blinking lights and new frontiers for humankind. And hey, the music in this dystopia is pretty dope.
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// Notes from the Road
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