In 1995, percussionist Chris Deckker and producer Andy Guthrie hit upon a very simple but remarkably effective formula—combine some of electronic dance music’s more intense, weirder offshoots, particularly Goa and psychedelic trance, with the driving percussion and hypnotic chants of world music. The results of their collaboration under the name Medicine Drum were far-reaching—a series of highly influential 12-inches, Deckker’s ground-breaking London dance club Return to the Source, even an international neo-hippie dance music festival called Earthdance, which has been endorsed by that hippest of spiritual leaders, the Dalai Lama himself.
In the wake of all this continuing success—and more importantly, the success of the band’s 1999 album Talking Stick—Medicine Drum’s US label Cyberoctave has decided to reissue Deckker and Guthrie’s 1997 debut album Supernature. Reissues are a risky venture in the world of electronic dance music, where popular taste is an ephemeral thing and successful tracks are so widely imitated that they often become cliched in a matter of months. (Just ask Paul Oakenfold, who’s recently reissued A Voyage into Trance already sounds hopelessly outdated.) Even a scant four years later, Supernature‘s production values sound a bit tinny when compared to the lush, multi-layered productions that are commonplace in 21st century dance music. But the songs themselves hold up, and the marriage of psy-trance riffing with neo-tribal percussion and vocals—call it tribal trance—is still so compelling you wonder why more people aren’t imitating it.
Actually people are imitating, as any trip to the dance club these days will tell you—nearly every new house and trance track coming out has a bongo drum buried in the mix somewhere, and Deckker and Guthrie are definitely on the list of people to thank for it. But whereas most dance music producers timidly drop acoustic percussion into the background, Medicine Drum places their tribal beats squarely in the forefront, creating a powerful tension between the primitive energy of the drums and the futuristic vibe of the squelching synthesizers. It’s quintessential desert rave music, the sort of stuff you can picture gypsies or African tribesmen dancing to as easily as you can scruffy Burning Man types or candied-out raver kids.
Cyberoctave is hyping “Alpha Return”, the album’s one track that was also released as a single in the US, but if anything, it’s the disc’s least interesting track, amid-tempo psychedelic/ambient snoozer with too many synth hand-claps and a distorted electric guitar solo providing most of the texture. Of far more interest are tracks like “Slipstream”, which combines the beautiful minor-key wail of a singer from some unknown Eastern country (India? Israel? Afghanistan?) with the jangling of (I think) a Hungarian cimbalom and the staccato drone of a driving Goa trance riff. Or check out the propulsive “Siouxpernature”, which begins with an American Indian tribal song, then erupts into a furious battle between Deckker’s live percussion and the dive-bomb swoops of Guthrie’s psy-trance riffs, punctuated by an almost breakbeat-like drum and synth-bass bridge. Supernature is full of interesting sonic juxtapositions like these, and it’s probably a mark of how hard they are to pull off that they’ve been so rarely imitated.
For my money, the album’s best track is “Water”, which combines rain sticks, African talking drums and something resembling whale songs with an ear-grabbing Goa trance hook to create an utterly unique musical statement that also happens to be a killer dance track. It’s even, God forbid, kinda catchy, which may be Medicine Drum’s greatest sin in psy-trance and Goa circles, where they’re generally respected but not really revered like more over-the-top avant-garde acts like Infected Mushroom and Sun Project. (Talking Stick, which is more of a Deckker solo project since Andy Guthrie stopped touring with the group in ‘98, is even catchier, with more melodic synth lines that at times approach the polish of progressive trance.) Hopefully the reissue of Supernature will help expose Medicine Drum to a wider and more mainstream dance music audience—their unique ability to marry tribal and trance sounds in an innovative, accessible way deserves much more exposure stateside than it’s received.