Renaissance Presents James Zabiella: Utilities
US release date: 28 June 2005
UK release date: 20 June 2005
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
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Music has always been defined in part by technology. New advances in the practical mechanics and theoretical underpinnings of sound have shaped the state of music for as long as music has existed. Perhaps no advancement has changed the relationship of man and his music so much as the invention of recorded sound—a development that forever altered the conception of sound as a static and immalleable figure of the present.
By definition, electronic music has always positioned itself at the far borders of technological progress, and as such it has consistently pushed the limits of definitional boundaries. On a purely technical level, all recorded music since the invention of the stereo amplifier and magnetic tape has been “digital”: removed from the practical laws of basic physics that regulate the transmission of sound waves and given over to the invisible realm of electrons and magnets. It was inevitable once electronics became so integral to the dissemination and preservation of music that they would one day be used in the creation of music, just as it was also inevitable that there would be strong resistance from many who would to define music along more narrowly traditional terms. And while there have been steady strides in the advancement of electronic music throughout the century, from musique concrete on through “Tomorrow Never Knows” and Kraftwerk, it took the invention and widespread ubiquity of the personal computer to fully harness the incipient revolution.
Even inside the ranks of dance music DJs, who might be considered among the most technologically adept musicians in the world, there are rifts and schisms developing between those who ascribe to conflicting philosophies. When second-wave techno godfathers DJs Richie Hawtin and John Acquaviva put their considerable reputations behind Stanton’s Final Scratch digital mixing program (which hnables the DJ to interface a live turntable setup with the processing power of a laptop computer in order to achieve heretofore unimagined effects), the ensuing reaction accentuated extant differences between aesthetic purists and futurists—differences which had already been highlighted by the spread of CD turntable systems. Many DJs—including luminaries such as Frankie Bones—hold that digital mixing bears no relationship to “real” DJing, with vinyl records and direct-drive turntables. Many others bought Final Scratch and immediately began transferring their record collections to MP3 format.
The waters were further muddied by the many DJ mix CDs that have proliferated on store shelves in recent years. Although for many years a mix CD was considered to be by definition a live recording, the advent and proliferation of studio multitracking software such as Pro Tools obliterated the audience’s ability to ever trust anything not specifically labeled as “Live”. And as anyone who knows their Kiss can attest, not even the “Live” label is a perfect guarantee of authenticity. Everyone in the dance music world has heard stories and rumors (sometimes apocryphal, sometimes not) of DJs in all fields who have built unearned reputations on the false pretenses of Pro Tool-ed mix discs and rudely disappointed their fans with poor live performances. This scenario creates a surreal parallel to the classical world, where the introduction of multitrack recording software created a paradigm shift, as well as a cultural crisis among musicians torn between the values of imperfect but “authentic” recordings and digitally tweaked “perfect” recordings.
The classic question of “Is It Live Or Is It Memorex?” has been rendered moot by an increasing variety of tools for the adventurous DJ. The dividing line between technology and talent becomes more and more blurred as more and more artists expand their toolboxes to include techniques and tricks that would have been both inconceivable and impossible as recently as five years ago. In many ways the rapid spread of digital technology has obviated the ethical and even existential questions which may once have seemed so urgent. Now that some of the biggest DJs in the world have already made the switch to all-digital or hybrid rigs, the rest of the dance music community is left merely to choose their allegiances.
Sasha has been one of the biggest names in dance music since the early ‘90s, when he and John Digweed made their names in Britain’s post-rave club scene. He’s been around long enough to sponsor his own protégé, James Zabiela. Zabiela rose to instant prominence as the winner of Muzik Magazine’s 2000 Bedroom DJ competition, and soon after became one of the top acts in the world. The two regularly play together, and their mutual commitment to pushing the technological envelope defines their sounds. Fundacion and Utilities, released only a week apart, highlight the changing face of dance music while also serving to remind us—as if we needed to be reminded—that all the toys in the world are useless without the kind of discriminating ear that the best DJs bring to the tables.
When Zabiela first came onto the scene at the turn of the century, he was unusual for the fact that he preferred digital CD decks to traditional vinyl. This, in turn, led to a position with the Pioneer corporation, developing and testing new products for DJs across the planet. Utilities is the sequel to 2004’s ALiVE, and represents a significant evolution in Zabiela’s style. The first disc, “Computed”, was created in an exclusively digital environment, on a computer using the Ableton Live sequencing program, whereas the second disc, “Recorded”, was recorded according to Zabiela’s more traditional setup, with three Pioneer CDJ1000Mk II digital mixers, a mixer and an effects board.
Zabiela is a competent DJ, and his distinctive mixture of progressive house, breakbeat and techno stands out against the backdrop of many DJs with more limited palettes. But the problem with Utilities stems from the fact that the mix lacks the kind of deep, almost intuitive sense of spontaneity that defines most great mixes. Perhaps you could make an apt comparison between Zabiela and the likes of Steve Vai and Yngwie Malmsteen—like those respected guitar heroes, there are simply no flies on Zabiela’s technical prowess. But tell me, man, where’s the soul?
I will admit that I much preferred the “Computed” disc to the “Recorded” disc and to this fact I think I can credit the superior track selection. For one thing, he’s got an exclusive acid house mix of Aphex Twin’s “Windowlicker” (the Kreice Remix) that just slays. At the end it morphs into a slightly queasy version of Solid Groove’s “This Is Sick” that is similarly effective. The problem—and this is typical of the disc as a whole—comes when Zabiela has to move between the tracks. Instead of simply transitioning between two hard and effective tracks, he uses some kinda weird gimmicky fade effect that manages to crash almost all the momentum.
Another selling point for the disc is the presence of a few original tracks by Zabiela. These tracks, “EyeAMComputer” and “Robophobia” in particular, are splendid examples of hard breaks wit ha slight techno edge, but they are not enough to overcome Zabiela’s propensity towards busy, disconnected mixing. The consistently sturdy Lee Coombs shows up for “Outta My Mind”, which provides some necessary nu-school breaks flavor for the mix.
If “Computed” had been a single disc release, I’d probably be more generously inclined towards the album, but the second disc put a bad taste in my mouth. Again, there is nothing wrong with Zabiela’s mixing, so much as the entire disc strikes me as rather fatuous in conception. A mix disc is only as good as its tracks, and this disc falls far short of the standard set by “Computed”. With a few exceptions, the tracks on disc two are nowhere near as interesting as the tracks on disc one. Perhaps this is a more accurate representation of Zabiela’s live show? That would make sense, because the majority of these tracks are overly repetitive, and just not very interesting. It’s often the case that tracks designed for play in loud club environments seem emaciated on your home stereo—the dynamics being totally different—and this is one of the reasons why creating a mix CD for home enjoyment is a totally different animal than spinning for a capacity crowd. Musically, “Recorded” is just not very interesting.
Zabiela’s technological preoccupation gets the best of him on “Recorded”, with slightly embarrassing results. It’s one thing to have cool toys and know how to use them—it’s another thing entirely to have designed a prototype effects box for DJs for which your mix is essentially an hour-long advertisement. I mean, yeah, most DJs would kill to have the kind of relationship with a company like Pioneer that Zabiela does, and there’s every chance that his EFX1000 may just be a damn fine piece of equipment, but putting a two-page explication of the mix in your liner notes, with a miniscule play-by-play of every knob twiddle and button push, seems excessive. It wouldn’t even be so bad if the mix itself wasn’t particularly special: there’s nothing here that most DJs couldn’t do with a standard split-channel rotary mixer and a Korg Kaos Pad.
It’s a good indicator of where these mixes sit that while I meekly endured the Zabiela discs for the purposes of this review, I couldn’t wait to listen to Fundacion again. Sasha is a pro, and while I haven’t always liked everything he’s done (I never cared for trance and was happy to see him move away from the genre), I’ve always been able to enjoy his mixes for the consummate performances they have invariably been. Fundacion is a step away from the purely digital environment of 2004’s Involver. Whereas Involver represented a unique hybrid between remixing and producing, offering ten exclusive remixed tracks in a continuous mixed format, Fundacion returns to the live setting and reintroduces the element of spontaneity that Involver lacked.
Fundacion places Sasha on the far end of the technological spectrum, one step further even from the technologically adept Zabiella and closer to pioneers like Hawtin and Acquaviva. This disc marks the recording debut of Sasha’s MAVEN device, a unique mixing console that is, to the best of my knowledge, unique among its kind. MAVEN welds the versatility and computing power of Ableton Live on a Macintosh G4 laptop to a specially designed mixing box, enabling the user to interface with the program directly through the mixer, without the clunky intermediary of a mouse or keyboard, let alone a turntable or CDJ. Despite the device’s unquestionable cool factor, there are no plans to mass-produce this Frankenstein’s monster of a console: there’s only one copy in existence, constructed in a custom metal box and apparently still prone the kind of glitches you’d expect from any complicated piece of electrical equipment put together in your garage.
But most importantly, Sasha knows how to use his machine to good effect. Listening to Fundacion, you are not constantly reminded of the really cool futuristic technology at work. While there is certainly a lot to marvel at here in terms of technical daring-do, it wouldn’t be worth your time if it weren’t a fantastic mix. This is a strong disc constructed out of strong tracks, mixed together with an eye towards cohesion and flow. It adds up to something that is much better than merely the sum of its funky parts.
The mix starts off on a melancholy note, with the Richard Davis mix of Swayzak’s “Another Way”, originally released on last year’s Loops From the Bergerie. The Swayzak track slowly emerges from the melody of Adam Johnson’s “Four Squares”, segueing from one to the other before you know what’s happening. The energy builds slowly while still maintaining the mood, passing into the Carl Craig mix of Beanfield’s “Tides”, featuring a sultry jazz vocal from Bajka. This track build into a tremendous force, until giving way to the Stel mix of Kosmas Epsilon’s powerful techno stomper “Innocent Thoughts”.
Ideally, a good dance DJ should be inconspicuous, picking the perfect tracks to build the mood and energy levels while maintaining enough variety to keep the crowd interested. Sasha was always a particularly unobtrusive presence, but Fundacion shows that he has taken the next step from being unobtrusive to almost invisible. Editing and mixing these tracks in such a seamless manner allows the mix to melt into a fully cohesive whole. The transition from Holden & Thompson’s “Come to Me” into Playgroup’s cover of Depeche Mode’s “Behind the Wheel” takes almost two full minutes to hit, and when it finally does you’re amazed at how subtly he was able to slip such a distinctively recognizable bassline right under your nose.
This mix has a lot of electro on it, in the form of the aforementioned Playgroup track as well as two separate Ewan Pearson mixes and appearances by Tiefschwarz and Goldfrapp. It’s a good fit with Sasha’s more recognizable progressive house sound. Although it may seem counter indicated by the emphasis on long, gorgeous mixes, Fundacion also sees Sasha paying a surprising amount of attention to the quality of songs as distinct elements and not merely masses of spare parts to be mixed and matched. There’s a lot of thought been put into exactly how to build a satisfying mix, with just the right mix of dancefloor energy, narrative flow and freaky psychedelic computer noise.
When it finally ends with the one-two shot of Goldfrapp’s pounding “Strict Machine” and the Superpitcher remix of M83’s “Don’t Save Us From the Flames”, you are thoroughly satisfied that you have experienced something unique and quite affecting. Sasha didn’t need to write out a long explication of exactly how he accomplished all these devastating mixes: he knows that to be very profoundly besides the point.
If we have learned anything from over a hundred years of science fiction, it is that technology is only as valuable as the minds that create and define it. The field of dance music is the most technologically integrated field in all of music, and for that reason among many it can sometimes be hard to draw the line between legitimately groundbreaking applications and masturbatory gimmicks. Sometimes, of course, the only difference between the two is a properly functioning imagination.