[29 September 2003]
We music critics are a little too fond of the word “seminal”, but once in awhile we actually apply it to something worthy of the term. Take Meat Beat Manifesto’s 1989 debut album Storm the Studio, which is about as seminal as it gets, a release so groundbreaking and forward-thinking that when it first came out, no one really had the vocabulary to describe it. People called it industrial, techno, acid house, even hip-hop, which seems ridiculous in retrospect, but terms like darkcore, breakbeat, trip-hop, and that most heinous of genre names, IDM, hadn’t been invented yet, so there was simply no way to pigeonhole Jack Dangers’ and Jonny Stephens’ dark, restless, sample-laden soundscapes. There still isn’t, really, no matter how many terms have been coined over the last decade to describe the various sounds and styles the duo helped to create. MBM’s music remains a unique bastard hybrid of glitchy grooves, industrial noise and moody songcraft, sometimes beautiful, sometimes nearly unlistenable, but almost always fascinating.
The hazard in revisiting any “seminal” album, of course, is that there’s really no way to top it. About the best you can do is to echo and reflect the greatness of the original in some interesting ways, which is pretty much exactly what Storm the Studio R.M.X.S. achieves. Made up of 13 remixes, reinventions and “reanimations” of the original Storm the Studio tracks, the album features several of MBM’s longtime cohorts and proteges as well as a few key artists who certainly owe a debt to those early Dangers and Stephens sonic experiments: DJ Spooky, Antipop Consortium’s High Priest, Scanner, DJ Swamp, and others. Overall, the collection’s focus on Storm the Studio instead of MBM’s entire early catalog (or at least its Wax Trax! albums, which have both just been reissued) stretches the 13 tracks a little thin; but there’s still much to enjoy here, and some of the collection’s more radical reworks are a fitting reminder of just how much the legacy of those early, edgy MBM tracks has reverberated down through the past decade-and-a-half of electronic music.
The collection starts off in classic MBM territory with Dangers’ current favorite collaborator, Ben Stokes (Jonny Stephens departed the MBM fold after 1996’s Subliminal Sandwich). Their mashup of various parts of Storm the Studio, “Cease to Exist”, is a dark journey into ambient breaks and spooky samples that echoes the tone of early MBM while sticking to the sparser, roomier sound Dangers has favored on more recent projects. The rest of the collection leans heavily into the IDM camp, with sliced-and-diced versions of “God O.D.” by Eight Frozen Modules and “Re-Animator” by Frank Bretschneider a.k.a. Komet, who compresses the original’s ragged riffs down into tensely coiled packs of tinny noise. By far the weirdest revamp is a version of “God O.D. - Part 1” by veteran French avant-noise guru Norscq, who shows the younger upstarts how its done by tossing in everything from what sounds like a duet between a melancholy marimba and a Japanese koto to a doo-wop chorus singing “It’s Tricky” as a lead-in to a raucous b-boy sample. It’s like channel-surfing on acid.
While the aforementioned cut-and-paste jobs are interesting, the best tracks on Storm the Studio R.M.X.S. tend to be the ones that find a groove and ride it awhile, instead of hop-scotching all over the IDM landscape of bleeps, glitches, distorted vocals and left field samples. Twilight Circus’ “Storm the Dub Mix” is exemplary, a trippy funk jam complete with a popping bass hook and jangly guitar licks that give the track a head-bobbing momentum without losing any of MBM’s edgy atmospherics. DJ Spooky’s “Shadow & Substance Mix” likewise gets propelled along by one of his trademark thundering drum loops, the bedrock foundation for a soundscape every bit as weird as—well, not as weird as Norscq, but at least as far out there as Eight Frozen Modules’ ADD-fueled work. Tracks transformed by The Opus and DJ Swamp also have some definite crowd-moving capabilities (and in Swamp’s case, even a great heavy-metal guitar riff and some of Dangers’ original punk-meets-rap vocal chants).
High Priest’s “STS 2006” mix is interesting but ranks as a disappointment, a too-short fusion of hip-hop groove and clanging industrial dynamics that never really gets off the ground. And the collection’s most intriguing contributor, veteran Japanese noise merchant Merzbow, also falls short of expectations; his epic, eight-minute rework of “God O.D. - Part 2” starts off effectively with an eerie, hypnotic mix of high-pitched whine and abstract beat looping, but it dwells too long on its sparse groove before dwelling even longer on a dog-whistle of wailing one-note synth that makes it nearly impossible to stick around for the song’s noisy but anticlimactic second half.
Ultimately, I think it’s safe to say that longtime Meat Beat fans will enjoy the non-reverential treatment the original Storm the Studio tracks receive here, while others will find this collection even more impenetrable than MBM’s own albums. If you’re a rabid fan of Aphex Twin or DJ Spooky or DJ Shadow and you’re curious to see where they got some of their inspiration, slip back into the original Storm the Studio before dipping your toe in this turgid collection.