The Superchumbo sound straddles the line between house and breaks, infusing the traditional house template with a chunkier, industrial-influenced sound that owes as much to industrial dance godfathers Nitzer Ebb as to Danny Tenaglia. I didn’t pull either of those names out of a hat, either, as both acts were integral to the development of Superchumbo—a.k.a. Tom Stephens—as a leading figure in the world of modern house.
Wowie Zowie hearkens back to another era in the history of house, in particular the sound of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s New York clubs that spawned the stateside garage sound, a sound typified by the work of Stephens’ friend Tenaglia. Certainly, it’s not a retro album: Stephens’ deep, frenetic sound is rigorously current. But there’s a freewheeling attitude that seems almost nostalgic, a hearkening back to the earliest roots of modern club culture and the willful eclecticism that sprang from the music’s multi-cultural and multi-sexual origins. An album like Wowie Zowie serves as something of a riposte to the aggressively desexualized facade of so much modern house.
So, when ‘80s icon Samantha Fox shows up on “Sugar”, it makes sense that she should chant “anything for you, sugar” repeatedly and in increasing degrees of arousal. From “Sugar” to Stephens’ 2002 club hit “Irresistable”, the mood segues from blatant to something more coy. Although I appreciated “Irresistable” when I first heard it, it now impressed me as a more marked homage to the early eras of “Diva” house. Basically, it’s a fun track, and as such it still sounds as fresh as it did three years ago.
Neil Tennant of the immortal Pet Shop Boys shows up on “Tranquilizer”. Surprisingly, this is perhaps the album’s most abrasive track, a far cry from the Pet Shop Boys’ sound. It’s a good fit, however, a gnarled electro stomper juxtaposed against Tennant’s arch lyricism to good effect.
“U Know I Love It” and “Bring It” continue the old-school feel, sounding for all the world like they could have come out of New York at any point in the last 15 years (give or take a little distortion on the bass line). There’s even a vocal snippet (courtesy of Gay Joy) in “Bring It” on the joys of being a queen—not exactly a sentiment likely to creep into the latest minimal prog masterpiece from Renaissance. The feeling culminates with “Dirty Filthy”, featuring a Diva turn by Celeda, which celebrates the joys of being, um, dirty.
Stephens backs away slightly from the retro feel on the album’s last third. “This Beat Is” and “Wowiezowie” both introduce a harder, more techno-oriented sound that definitely plays well after the more carnivalesque attitude from the album’s middle. The sound unpacks a bit, leaving a bit more room for atmospheric mood and perhaps even a bit of menace. Of course, the final track brings back a more literal carnival feel, with what sounds like an entire Mardi Gras festival, complete with chanting crowds, whistles and steel kettle drums.
Wowie Zowie is a good album that manages to please despite the lack of much textural variation—it hits the ground running and doesn’t let up for over an hour. As an album, this makes an excellent primer for Superchumbo’s extremely club-friendly sound. That it might not hold up well for repeated listening is unfortunate, but it makes perfect sense considering that most of these tracks were clearly designed to be heard in the context of a bustling club environment. Some dance albums accommodate to the prejudices of the home listener, while some depend on a firm rooting in club culture—Wowie Zowie is firmly among the latter. Upbeat, full of energy and a clear enthusiasm for house in all its forms, Tom Stephens is a fine producer who just doesn’t seem very comfortable in the album format.