When those hopelessly atavistic rock snobs sneer at dance music for being soulless and robotic, in all likelihood the music they have in their head is something like the music published by the Bedrock label. This is the same label, after all, whose chief—Mr. John Digweed—is famous for appearing on his own album covers in bland grey sweaters, wearing a bored but infinitely patient look of consummate blankness. This is music, in other words, designed and played by people who have a physical aversion to the very idea of Rock Stardom. The beats are deep, the synths are whooshy, and the whole thing can add up to something either monotonous or transcendent—I guess we’re in progressive territory.
If it sounds like I’m being unfair, well, I don’t really mean it. I actually quite like Digweed, especially these last few years since he’s left trance in his past and started playing a more eclectic and varied mixture of tunes. But the bread and butter of the Bedrock label is still progressive, be it the traditional progressive house, progressive breaks or even progressive downtempo. I, for one, did not even believe that such a thing as progressive downtempo existed, but sure enough, the first disc of this compilation is dedicated to just that.
Just as progressive rock was pompous and over-inflated, providing ample opportunity and for punk to come along and pop it’s blustery balloon, progressive dance music is purposefully, sometimes maddeningly deliberate. You almost get the feeling that all these progressive producers wanted so badly to be taken seriously that they decided to create some of the most self-consciously serious music ever recorded. At least trance has a sense of joy—regardless of how emaciated by repetition and formula it may be—whereas at its worse, progressive house is merely dull. But thankfully for this reviewer as well as the music buying public, the wares sampled on the second Layered Sounds compilation are far from dull. At the risk of seeming reductive, some of the more exciting tracks don’t even seem to be progressive.
As I mentioned, the first disc is devoted to downtempo. “I’ll Kill You Softy”, by Terry Grant featuring Jennifer Horne, is slow and languid, with a hint of Indian percussion and a deep synthesizer whoosh, offset against the surprise appearance of a blues guitar in the middle eight. It shares, however, the sense of spaciousness that seems to pervade the entire Bedrock catalog—the sense of every sound existing in a physical reality of great width and breadth. Very roomy. Some of the tracks on the first disc, such as Voyager & Kris Avedon’s “The March” and Yunus Guvenen’s “Open Arms” seem as if they could have wandered off a more uptempo compilation and simply screwed themselves down to half-speed in order to fit.
And then you’ve got Morgan Page & Gregory Shiff feat Astrid Suryanto’s “All I Know”, which sounds every bit like a category for a future high-end chill compilation, no questions asked. It’s got the shuffling pseudo-trip-hop beat and the weird synth parts already. My favorite track on this disc is probably the Am Bee En Tea Mix of Luke Chable’s “Melburn”, which features nothing but ringing synth lines coruscating and sliding into the stratosphere for five minutes—a beautiful effect that recalls M83 or Ulrich Schnauss. The rest of the disc bounces back and forth between vaguely jazzy trip-hop and downbeat progressive tracks such as the Ambient Mix of Steiger’s “Postcard From the Edge” (the latter of which takes the progressive ethos perhaps a bit to far and ends up in the middle of cheesy New Age land—a calculated risk for this type of music, to be sure).
“Postcard From the Edge” reappears on the second disc, in its breaks incarnation, and in all honesty you’d be hard pressed to tell the two tracks ever shared any sort of common ancestor. The breaks mix is hard and metallic, with an acid riff that won’t quit and something else that sounds like a screaming devil. It’s got a trancey breakdown that seems to have been the entirety of the Ambient Mix, but that’s the only resemblance. All the breaks tracks on the second disc are similarly energetic. Weird Continental Types’ “Phat As” is simply weird, with odd synthesizer riffs that sound like elephants mating, and bass farts that seem to strike the listener dead in his tracks. Breaks stalwarts Elite Force contribute “sK8”, which is an apt reminder of just why they’ve been in the game this long, being as funky as it is despite the disc’s general nu-skool / prog feel.
In the house vein, Tim Skinner & Martin Accorsi’s “Playing For Digweed” is built atop the kind of faux-cheesy rave bassline that used to be ubiquitous, but which is now merely nostalgic. POB & Taylor’s “Aura” is dark progressive, with a hint of European techno added to the mix. Speaking of techno, Derek Howell’s “Happy to Be Sad” is a Detroit techno track masquerading as a progressive trance number, complete with hollow-sounding 808 stabs under the perfunctory prog melody line. The rest of the disc features more of the label’s characteristic prog house. The Fretwell mix of Bedrock’s “Forge” (Digweed also records under the name Bedrock on occasion, in addition to it being the name of his label) is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from a progressive house track in the year 2005, with vague rock guitar bits and spare hints of trance flavor over sweeping, atmospheric synth lines.
To my pleasant surprise, John Digweed has built quite an eclectic roster for his label. Within the general idiom of progressive music, he has managed to pull from multiple corners of the electronic music world while still maintaining a generally distinctive profile. It’s a neat trick. While label compilations are generally bad news in the world of rock and roll, they usually fare better in the electronic music world. Layered Sounds 2 is no exception to the rule, providing two discs worth of rare and remixed treats for fans of electronic music, or even just curious bystanders wandering in from the cold.