One of the biggest beefs that both critics and the public seemed to have in the late 1970s was about the “processed” or “artificial” sounds of dance music. As opposed to the “pure” sounds of live instrumentation and the “spontaneous” acts of creation that supposedly accompanied rock music, disco and its ilk were seen as hopelessly studio-centered, the “product” of hundreds of faceless producers. (To be fair to the disco haters, post-Saturday Night Fever, the music seemed to march in unison to a crippled 4/4 lockstep; as there was more of an emphasis on creating something that produced ching in the chinos rather than boom in the behinds.) Because of this bias, which was as much pro-aesthetics as anti-urban, anti-woman, anti-black, and anti-homosexual, history often resigns disco to a separate “forgettable and regrettable” category.
As many champions of disco have pointed out, though, this felt dichotomy is, in reality, a false one: rock musicians have access to just as much spontaneity as disco musicians; rock music can be just as processed and produced as disco (Anyone remember Shadow Morton? Phil Spector? Steve Albini?); rock is just as grounded in 20th century capitalism as disco is. This is not to mention the fact that disco arrangers and producers such as Vincent Montana, Jr., Patrick Adams, and Walter Gibbons all used live instrumentation to complement their dancefloor-friendly sounds. In fact, one aspect of disco that can signpost it as such is the swelling of a “live” string section, as on MFSB’s “Love Is the Message” or The Salsoul Orchestra’s “Salsoul Hustle”.
Unfortunately, though, this bias continued through the 1980s and 1990s, albeit with a slight about-face at the end of the century. The initial popular and critical resistance to Eurodisco and hi-NRG, hip-hop, house, techno, and the various genres of electronic-based dance music that disco birthed, was based on the same reaction that people had with mother disco: it was too artificial, too amateur, and too all-about-the-benjamins. What with the current trend for advertisers to use these types of music to signify youth and hipness, to sell watches and sports cars, it seems only appropriate that the ghosts of disco and her children should be jiving in their graves.
Enter Metro Area, the best types of gravediggers, the ones who are more interested in dusting those bones off and making them groove, rather than putting them together in interestingly chin-scratching postmodern millennial ways. Made up of Morgan Geist and Darshan Jesrani, both techno musicians and producers, the duo came together in 1999 New York and released a 12-inch (their first as Metro Area, on their own Environ Records) to the surprise and enjoyment of dance music heads everywhere. Metro Area, their first CD release, compiles this first groundbreaking 12-inch and their three equally-astounding subsequent ones (spanning 1999-2001) with four new tracks.
This release reminds us of dance music’s myriad pasts without sounding retro, reheated, or sample-heavy. Sure, there are percolating basslines that sound like a classic Giorgio Moroder lope-along, Curtis Mayfieldish chicka-chicka guitars, strings straight out of a Gamble-Huff melodrama, squelches and electronic washes resurrected from any number of homemade techno tapes lost in the attics of Detroit, percussive accents from the Incredible Bongo Band, and handclaps from the files of Arthur Baker—and that’s just the first track, “Dance Reaction”—but everything is woven together with an incredible sense of dynamics.
Geist and Jesrani are perhaps most indebted to the producers who wedded live instrumentation to electronic sounds: Patrick Adams (Cloud Nine, Phreek, Musique) is an obvious example. (It goes without saying that Adams is one of many disco artists who proves the original detractors of disco to be short-sighted.) In his productions, squiggly synthesizers and Moogs do the bump with live and electronic drums, while pitch-shifted vocals slide over slinky Latin percussion. Metro Area’s head-expanding first hit “Atmosphrique” (track seven here) owes more than a title to Adams’ way of making weird elements sound good together.
Adams is part of a micro-genre of dance music that’s as Janus-faced as Metro Area; this style draws on everything from dub to disco, funk to punk, new wave to techno. In fact, Geist and Jesrani bonded over a shared love of 12” slabs of this style of dance music that can probably only be called “experimental” or “avant-garde”. However, it’s important to note that, despite their obvious inspiration from and debt to these musics, Metro Area is more interested in making people move than in tickling their cerebellums.
First of all, the atmospheric and spacious production gives the head more to discover with each listen. The powerful “Miura” sounds like a pulsating Gary Glitter number until the cooing vocals and percussion start; all this gives way to a synthesizer section that would do New Order proud. “Pina” starts with a gentle and mournful Spanish-style guitar and a muted piano line; someone whispers “fuck” in the background and the song morphs into a Latin-tinged house track. “Machine Vibes” begins with some monster drums and a bubbling bass, which are eventually complemented by wispy flute and organ. Fortunately, the lush and organic arrangements on this record give something for the body to discover with every listen, too.
In other words, dichotomies notwithstanding, what’s ultimately great about this CD is that Metro Area inspires both the head and the hips.