As the dance scene grows, fragments and, all too often, moves further and further away from its roots in black musical forms, it is interesting to catch up on developments in the home of Techno, Detroit. For, while the pioneers of electronic dance music opened the doors for a generation of white devotees to misguidedly lead the music down increasingly hard and soulless roads, many of the actual originators and their followers, plus some co-conspirators in Chicago and elsewhere, have become funkier and more unashamedly tuneful. Moodymann, Carl Craig and the Planet E outfit, Theo Parrish, Larry Heard and Roy Davis Jr. are all mixing the electronic stuff with jazz, soul and even gospel flourishes. Now Stacey Pullen, whose association with the legendary Derrick May will always haunt him, has produced an album that, while determinedly digital, has enough emotion and musicality to warrant attention from an audience wider than the insular and often arid world of the standard technophile.
This is not to suggest that this is a soul or a jazz album. Today Is the Tomorrow You Were Promised Yesterday is not Stacey goes Motown (although it is worth mentioning that his dad was in ‘60s vocal group The Capitols). We are still firmly in the realms of electronica. Yet there is much about this record that suggests Herbie Hancock and Alphonse Mouzon rather than the more commonly cited European sources of inspiration. There are also several nods towards deep house and the whole “broken beat” movement. The result can be regarded as part of a discernible tendency to blur boundaries between the electronic dance genres and to re-affirm the black music elements that all share.
The first track proper is a definite deep houser. “Tsunami” provides infectious, melodic layers over a steady, driving beat and sounds like something you would hear from Circulation or on a Guidance compilation. The tempo is none too frantic and the emphasis is smooth rather than jagged. “Juke” fizzes and squelches in more time-honoured style but over a crashed backbeat aimed at the hips rather than the head. Not that cerebral matters are ignored. “Vertigo” retains the rhythmic pulse but features lieder-style female vocals over a digital landscape of harpsichord and strings. The result is delicate and assured. (Pullen’s claim that it reduced one listener to tears does however remind us how rarely the techno-heads encounter any real passion.)
After “Powershot”, a meaty chunk of old fashioned “four on the floor” Mayism, the flavour gets decidedly jazz-based. We encounter a series of complex time signatures with the central role played by the percussion, whether sampled or programmed—possibly even played, as Pullen is, I believe, a drummer by training. “Futuristiqfreakqueen” is built around a Billy Cobham-sounding drum solo and, just as Cobham fused jazz with rock, Pullen seems to be moving towards a futuristic version of the same—electronics as the rock element. Whatever the motive, it’s a great track as are “Insidetheoutway” and “40thstreetblack”—(I cannot share Pullen’s fondness for not using the spacebar) both of which echo with similar, Headhunterish, jazz-funk stylings.
Elsewhere, tracks like “Freeworld” and “Tiznit” combine the atmospherics and soundscape qualities that techno always seems to strive for with subtle bass-lines and a deep house moodiness. The bass and drum provide a dancefloor warmth which frees the keyboards to explore the abstractions that remain central to the genre. The tunes rely less on the hypnotic progression form of repeated patterns than is usually the case and more on this patterning of sound and shape. I am not claiming that this album is free from the repetitive elements that put some off electronica but simply that the groove created here has more options to play with because of the combination of ingredients used.
In all, this is another example of the ongoing creativity coming from the fringes and the left side of dance music at the very moment that mainstream dance is at its most uninventive and unlovable. It must be pointed out that the danceability of much of this material is questionable. I have to say I can’t see too many of these tracks electrifying the big room of some corporate club.But as an addition to what is a still developing dialogue between technology and rhythm this is a praiseworthy project. It is not without the solemnity that the machine still seems to impose on artists working in this area (the sleevenotes are as angst ridden as any in the history of music) but there are pleasures for both the mind and the body in what is, if not a mould breaking affair, one that is moving in a very productive direction.