Listen up, kids, I’m about to drop some science on your heads: there once was a guy called Gerald Simpson, who went by the name A Guy Called Gerald. Perhaps not the catchiest nom de guerre, but hey, it was the ‘80s. After techno and house incubated in the United States during the mid-to-late ‘80s, dance music crossed the Atlantic to find a welcome reception in Britain. Simpson was right there in the thick of it—you’d be hard pressed to pick up a classic rave compilation from the era that didn’t have “Voodoo Ray” on it. He’s so old school he gets props for helping define both acid house and drum & bass—this from an era before the two genres had ever split in twain.
So, yeah, when A Guy Called Gerald drops a new disc, it’s time to pay attention. Dance music, like hip-hop, is a particularly fickle field where pioneers are not often accorded the respect they are due. The crucial difference, however, is that very few hip-hop legends are still producing work anywhere near as good as their best, if they’re even working at all, whereas dance music fans are privileged to still a large number of the architects alive and kicking. Let’s put it this way: if LL Cool J or Kool Moe Dee put out a four-and-a-half star CD in 2006, wouldn’t it be cause for celebration? Well, that’s probably not going to happen anytime soon, so let’s instead celebrate A Guy Called Gerald, who is still producing records as good or better than anything he released almost two decades ago. That’s some astounding longevity, especially in a genre often dismissed for its faddishness and fashion consciousness. A Guy Called Gerald has been around long enough that it really doesn’t matter whether or not his style is in fashion, because the sensibility he brings to the music is—at the risk of courting hyperbole—timeless.
Proto Acid: The Berlin Sessions is something of a concept album, at least according to Simpson’s own descriptions—an attempt at peering into a parallel universe wherein rave music had not exploded in England, and where house and techno had remained American phenomenas. Of course, there’s more than a bit of irony here, considering that Simpson is, as I mentioned, quite British, a native of Manchester. Dance music’s fatal Achilles Heel in America has been the (often justified) perception of the music as a predominantly European field, despite the fact that house and techno were born and bred in the United States. Perhaps house music could have become more popular if it hadn’t become so closely associated with European style? I don’t know—based simply on living in the here and now, it’s hard to envision a world where a track like “Marching Powder” could duke it out with Jessica Simpson at the top of the charts.
In any event, irony or no, Simpson doesn’t let the concept get in the way of creating a damn fine piece of music. The album is composed of 24 tracks, all of which are blended in such a way as to create a single cohesive composition. From the very beginning it’s hard to mistake this album for anything other than a blisteringly hot slice of hardcore techno album. Forget your microhouse or minimal techno, and despite Simpson’s feigned protestations to the contrary, this is old school acid at its very finest. The aforementioned “Marching Powder” kicks things off in high form, with tribal-influenced kick drums and pungent synthesizer riffs to singe your eyebrows off. Most people probably associate acid with a particular style of 303 riff—the noodly sound on a track like Josh Wink’s “Higher State of Consciousness”—but that’s really not the whole story. Sure, there are some obvious 303 wiggles here, but acid is more than just a single sound. It’s an attitude, a fast and loose evocation of the mind-expanding powers of hypnotically powerful dance music. Of course, the name “acid” brings all sorts of connotations—fittingly so, because while you hardly need drugs to appreciate dance music (certainly not if it’s any good!), good dance music can often synthesize a state of psychedelic abandon not dissimilar to a drug trip.
So yeah, this is some good stuff. Taken as a whole, it’s hard to isolate any real standout tracks. “Voltar” is the longest track, a slow-burning climax with a slight Latin influence; “Xray” uses subtle atmospherics to create a sensation of ominous vastness. The album concludes with “Sweet You”, a fittingly intimate expression of tenderness that replaces the hot synth stabs with gentle keyboard arpeggios and jazzy snare drums. More than anything else on the album, it reminds me of early A Guy Called Gerald—techno that wasn’t afraid to be baldly emotional, wasn’t afraid to represent something as seemingly slight and poignant as falling in love. The real strength of the album lies in the way it flows together so cohesively. Before you can get tired of any single groove, the track changes, new patterns and melodies coming to the fore. Themes and motifs build in intensity, cresting at peaks and sliding down into quiet valleys, just like a fine DJ set.
Dance music is a polyglot genre, and Proto Acid: The Berlin Sessions takes advantage of this fact to create something uniquely international: a British artist making an effort to reconnect with the music’s American roots, and recording in Germany (Germany is the one country that could possibly lay a claim to preeminence in techno over America, thanks to a group called Kraftwerk—you may have heard of them). Although Simpson is aware of his roots, this is fierce stuff, hardly an exercise in retro fetishizing. At its best, dance music still sounds like nothing so much as the future—and the future’s looking really good.