[7 November 2005]
It actually makes sense that Meat Beat Manifesto would turn to jazz—Meat Beat head honcho Jack Dangers has always been about the beat, about the groove that will make the world nod its collective head. If there’s something that jazz has as a genre, it’s groove. On Meat Beat Manifesto’s most recent album, At the Center, Dangers attempted to tap into that groove, even incorporating instruments like bass flutes and clarinets, all while retaining the solid drums and beats that give his band its middle name. At the Center is a study in genre cross-pollination, melding the free-form tendencies of jazz with the strict structures of electronic music, resulting in a push-pull dynamic that’s fascinating to hear, even if it’s not always enough to grab the typical listener in the naughty bits.
Off-Centre is the requisite follow-up EP, and those Meat Beat purists who were put off by the idea of Dangers’s fried-jazz tangent may still find something to enjoy in its six tracks.
Of most interest to anyone exploring the Off-Centre EP will be the inclusion of three brand new tracks—though the “brand new” label must be taken with a rather large grain of salt since two of the three new tunes have been available as free downloads on Amazon.com for some time. “Postcards” and “Maintain Discipline” are the two tracks on Amazon, and they are both fantastic. A listener would be forgiven for thinking that “Postcards” is an Actual Sounds and Voices-era Meat Beat song for the first few seconds until the piano shows up and drags us back into the Manifesto’s modern age. That piano line bursts in with some creepy X-Files-style action while multi-tracked jazz flutes intertwine with one another in and out of the mix, all on top of one of those vintage Dangers backbeats that set the house dancing well into the night. “Maintain Discipline” is a bit more tribal and free-flowing with its beats, eventually featuring a breakdown that culminates in a keyboard freakout that bleeds through to the song’s finale. Manic improvisation may not be for everybody, but it provides a fitting climax for the song, allowing the jazz to win the battle over the beats, rather than the other way around as in “Postcards”.
The other two studio tracks to be found on Off-Centre are a remix of At the Center‘s kickoff track “Wild” and one legitimately brand new track, “Dummyhead Stereo”. The remix of “Wild” will likely have people wishing it was this version that was on the album proper, as it’s far more propulsive than its non-remixed counterpart, integrating the bass flute and bass clarinet with a hip-hop beat that just somehow seems to make sense. “Dummyhead Stereo”, on the other hand, is awkward with its beats and offers nothing new to the instrumental palette. It’s an At the Center reject, and is best forgotten.
Most intriguing, however, are the live tracks tacked on to the end of the EP. “Shotgun (Blast to the Brain)” is a redux of a track on At the Center, and it hasn’t changed that much, save for a slight increase in IDM feel to the beat and a slight decrease in instrumental flourish. Closing out the album is a live version of “Prime Audio Soup”, a song that managed a slight bit of exposure bump for Dangers via the soundtrack to The Matrix. The inclusion of this version of “Prime Audio Soup” does three things: One, it’s a fantastic display of the way that Dangers enhances his live show with things like extra samples and beefed-up beats. Two, it points out the fact that for all of the hubbub over Meat Beat Manifesto’s “new sound”, there’s not that much of a difference between the sound of 2005 and that of 1998. Yet, third, even as it points out the similarities between the jazzified Meat Beat of today and the dancefloor-centered Meat Beat of yesteryear, the inclusion of “Prime Audio Soup” assuages the fears of the fans who may have considered abandoning Dangers in his new incarnation. He is reassuring us that this is still the same artist who gave us 99% and Asbestos Lead Asbestos, simply wearing a new costume for 2005.
In short, At the Center saw Dangers doing what he needs to do to keep himself interested in his own music. Off-Centre is the slightly reactionary post-experiment sound of an artist calming down his fanbase. As such, it’s a treat.