Those of us with long memories may not care to think about just how long it’s actually been, but the fact remains that dance music has been around for quite a long time. Long enough that almost all of the artists associated with the formative and middle years of electronic music culture have been or are in the process of being anthologized. I can speak from personal experience: there are few things in this business that make a body feel quite as old as seeing a “Greatest Hits” retrospective for an artist who used to be the fresh young thing not that long ago. I remember buying such-and-such’s albums when they first came out—don’t tell me he’s been around long enough to be “commemorated”, because that means I’ve been around for longer than I care to think about . . .
Within sight of my desk as I write this I can see recently released anthologies by the likes of Massive Attack, Moby, and the Future Sound of London—all released in the past few months. As revolutionary or mind-expanding as they may have once been or may remain, it’s the nature of this business we call show that just about any artist can be boiled down one or two small plastic discs, the essence of a lifetime’s work distilled into 80 pithy minutes and a handful of half-remembered tracks. Given the commercial nature of the music industry, anthologies of this sort are almost always commercial endeavors—designed to pad out contracts or fill the gap between albums. Of course, this is not to dismiss anthologies out of hand: compiling a good hits collection is an art unto itself, and sometimes when it works well it can serve as an effective prism with which to gain greater perspective on an artist’s career. If it sounds like I’m conflicted on this subject, it’s because I am.
Laurent Garnier’s Retrospective doesn’t fit neatly into this dynamic. Garnier isn’t anywhere close to a household name or even a celebrity in anything but the rarified world of international electronic dance music. I would almost say that given the nature of his career, a collection like this is less a concession than a necessity. Garnier has been at the forefront of the techno world for almost two decades, and as such he’s remained largely detached from the conventional marketing cycles of the music industry—he’s been a prolific remixer as well as a highly respected and successful producer, but never anything remotely resembling a pop star. I’ve been listening to his music for years and yet I really doubt I could place him in a lineup. That kind of relative anonymity is at the heart of just why electronic music can be such an exciting genre: the music takes center-stage. Even the “superstar DJs” are still, at the end of the day, relatively average dudes who just happened to be really good at spinning records. A quick glance at the bland faces staring back from the cumulative Global Underground catalog tells us that much.
Garnier is a perfect example. The cover of Retrospective features a totally obscured figure, barely even recognizable as human. The focus pulls back from the man, revealing the music in its purest and most unsullied form. Of course, this lack of celebrity “hook” probably goes a long way to explain why the music never really took off in America—but that’s essentially immaterial.
Garnier is one of those figures who has become an institution simply by virtue of having been around longer than just about anyone else. He was around at the beginning of modern dance music in England, spinning in the Hacienda in the late ‘80s, rubbing elbows with the likes of the Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays during their formative years. He was one of the first Europeans to bring the sounds of Chicago and Detroit across the pond. When he returned to his native France after an extended stay in England, he became one of the forerunners of the Gallic electronic music scene.
His influence on modern dance music can be heard in the way he weaves between multiple different iterations. Although it’s become second nature to regard dance music as a rigorously bifurcated scene, the fact is that when Garnier got his start, there were few boundaries between concepts like house and techno, let alone demarcations between things like deep house or tech-house or jazzy house. So while his catalog is studded with fairly orthodox techno jams like “Crispy Bacon” (from 1997, one his biggest singles and also one of his best), it is also filled with numerous hybrids and lengthy excursions into electronic jazz-fusion as well.
One of his other well-known singles, 2000’s “The Man With the Red Face”, actually appears here in an unique live incarnation, recorded with a full jazz band and featuring the screaming sax work of Haakon Korstad. (One other track is included in this live jazz format, “Acid Eiffel”, from 1993.) There are lots of people who like to throw jazz and house music together, but few do it as well as Garnier—it’s an organic juxtaposition that has less to do with simply bolting superficial jazz elements onto a 4/4 than matching actual freeform jazz instrumentation with the strong rhythms of dance. His remix of DJ Marky’s “Butterfly” (included here alongside a handful of other select remixes), is a great example of this kind of pliability: DJ Marky is technically drum & bass, but Garnier has no trouble producing a track that could easily have fit on a latter-day Herbie Hancock record.
The variety of styles presented on Retrospective is wide enough to easily make the case for Garnier as one of the most visionary dance producers of the last 20 years. From something like “Butterfly”, recorded just this year, the album segues into “At Night”, recorded under the Alaska alias and released in 2003—as menacing and ominous a techno anthem as you could ever hope to hear. Cuts like “For Max” and “Simone” (both from 1996) prove him to be equally adept in the fields of downtempo and even relatively ambient electronic music. Everything sounds fresh and remarkably crisp. Whereas certain artists attempts at diversity seem forced and uncomfortable, Garnier’s Catholicism is the natural outcome of a highly-refined musical temperament. His wide-ranging sound is never more effective than on a track like his remix of Carl Craig’s “Demented”, perhaps one of the most intense dance tracks ever recorded—pulling equally from the worlds of techno and house and explosively mating them with afrobeat in order to pull of something much greater than merely the some of its parts.
To judge by the evidence, there’s not a lot that Garnier can’t do. Retrospective is a fitting summary of the man’s work to date, and as such it is both a perfect treasure trove for long-time followers and a handy introduction for newbies. If electronic music is perceived in some quarters as a primarily European phenomenon, it is because artists like Garnier have worked so assiduously to make the music their own. This compilation navigates the last 20 years of dance music history with an enviable alacrity.