[7 October 2004]
I must admit that I find most progressive house to be unabashedly boring. This isn’t an ignorant, unformed opinion: if anyone wants to come to my house I will be happy to show you the piles and piles of mid-era Global Underground and Bedrock compilations I have had to listen to over the last five years. Sometimes life is harsh, and I used to dread the postman coming to my door for fear of some new brick of a progressive house collection being plopped on my doorstep.
I didn’t like trance to begin with. Although there are always a few interesting artists in any genre, trance has traditionally been the dumb cousin in the electronic music family tree: way too obvious, way too cheap, and totally lacking in any of the subtly and discernment you can find in just about any other field of electronic music. I guess some people love it, but as soon as I hear those appegiated synth vamps, my eyes roll and I see visions of candy ravers dancing like demented sugarplum fairies after taking too much “E”.
Progressive house became popular, I think, when some of the trance DJs figured out that the trance sound had lapsed into a populist parody of itself sometime around the release of the third volume in Sasha & Digweed’s Northern Exposure series. In the service of appearing more austere, the producers began to strip their trance records of all the melody parts, leaving merely the 4/4 beat and the atmospheric synth washes, along with very sparsely utilized vocal elements. All the poppy elements that had given trance its characteristic energy and vigor were gone, replaced with . . . well, nothing much. It was all very minimal, and not in a particularly interesting way, either.
Plastikman’s Consumed is a very minimal album, but it is also very good. What Richie Hawtin’s alter-ego lacks in melodic intricacy, he makes up for in sheer intensity. The majority of prog house, on the other hand, is merely torpid.
Ultimately, progressive house faced a variation of the same problem faced by progressive rock in the 70s: the energy and enthusiasm that had been sacrificed in the name of studied concentration and technical austerity had merely become boring and bloated. There’s a famous and perhaps apocryphal anecdote about Rick Wakeman ordering a dish of curry onstage at a Yes concert, and consuming it between solos. Certainly, it’s not hard to imagine Lee Burridge or Dave Seaman scarfing down some curry in between mixes.
But a funny thing has happened these last couple of years: other people besides just me have started to realize that prog house is boring, too. Sasha actually produced some interesting material far afield from the prog world, with his underrated Airdrawndagger album. This year’s Involver saw him incorporating electro and breakbeat influences into the prog lexicon, with some notable success. John Digweed, whose Bedrock label has become almost synonymous with prog, produced perhaps the best prog album of the bunch with 2002’s MMII, a prog mix that was notable for the ways in which it stretched the brittle barriers of a very humorless genre.
Which brings us nicely, about a page and a half into the review, to Messrs. Gabriel & Dresden. Technically, I suppose you would have to label them as prog. But even though they may share many surface similarities with prog, they can’t be prog. They kick too much ass.
Oh, don’t get me wrong: there are a few flabby moments on this set. It’d be pretty difficult to do a two-disc set without some down moments—not even the Beatles quite managed that trick. They decided to basically do the same thing the Stanton Warriors did in 2001, bypassing the hoary first “artist” album curse that has crippled so many notable DJs and remixers (Bunkka, anyone?) by packaging a handful of new tracks along with a bunch of similar tunes into the mix-CD format. It worked for the Stanton boys (now where’s the follow up, fellas?), and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t work for Gabriel & Dresden as well. The low points aren’t really very objectionable because there’s always a funky, propulsive kick-ass slab of wax around the corner.
The first disc begins with three original Gabriel & Dresden tunes, one from 2004 (“Arcadia”), and two from 2002. The first is a simply unbeatable chunk of progressive electro breakbeat, while the latter two betray a slightly more dated, albeit still resolutely funky, prog sound. There’s an epic trance remix of Depeche Mode’s classic “Here Is The House”, performed by Andain. (This is an interesting entry, because Andain seems to be Gabriel & Dresden with the addition of a female vocalist and another instrumentalist. The fact that there is a bootleg remix of the original Depeche Mode version tells me that they had some problems with clearance for their version and simply re-recorded it.) Michael Burns’ “Forewards” is a bit too trancey for my taste, and the inclusion of Junkie XL’s mix of Sarah McLachlan’s “World on Fire” is essentially uninteresting. The first disc ends on a high note, however, with the funky techno of Ferenc’s “Cronch” and Guy Gerber’s discoesque “Stoppage Time”.
The second disc is where the boys really come into their own. Although there are a few rather regrettable late-90s flashbacks scattered throughout, there are more than enough winners to make the mix stand out. Gabriel & Dresden’s collaboration with Elevation (“Athena”) sounds for the life of me like a holdover from the kind of late-90s big room trance style that I so desperately wish to forget, but their bruising remix of Lili Haydn’s “Anything” right after makes up for it. The Josh Gabriel mix of RND()‘s “Nova Satori” somehow draws a convincing lineage between epic trance and melodic techno, while their remix of Dido’s “Don’t Leave Home” is surprisingly powerful. The real winner here, however, is Bigtop’s “Sub”. Bigtop appears to be another side project of Gabriel & Dresden, this time alongside the legendary Bassbin Twins, and the results of this collaboration are suitably crunk.
The rest of the second disc is good, albeit nowhere near as great as “Sub”. Josh Gabriel contributes two solo tracks, but only one of them (“Switch”) is in the same league as his work with Dresden. The album ends eclectically, with Push’s frenetic “Electric Eclipse” and the acoustic version of Motorcycle’s “Imagination” (Motorcycle is another Gabriel & Dresden side project).
If you were to ask me why I find some of Gabriel & Dresden’s work so damn compelling, I might not be able to give you a fully satisfying answer. The fact is, they are as liable to fall prey to the characteristic cheesyness of trance or the ponderousness of prog as any of their peers. And yet, there’s something there that most other prog folks never manage: a propulsiveness, a sense of energy and enthusiasm. Their beats just sound funky, and the funky beat is, and shall always be, impossible to resist.