Satoshi Tomiie: ES / ES-B

[6 September 2005]

By Tim O'Neil

Satoshi Tomiie has been a staple of the American house scene for over 15 years. After working with seminal figures like Frankie Knuckles and David Morales in the formative years of the late’80s and early ‘90s, Tomiie would become one of the first American DJs to adapt the darker progressive sounds imported from the UK in the middle of the decade. Nowadays he’s known primarily for these progressive leanings—in particular his best-selling contribution to Global Underground’s NuBreed series—but he remains something of a wild card. His roots in the halcyon days of New York garage still show on occasion.

Now he’s gone all System of a Down on us, by choosing to release what is essentially a double album in two discrete parts, bookending the summer party season with a disc in June and a disc in August. I suppose we should be grateful, considering the sheer quantity of double- and even triple-disc mix albums we in the electronic music world have to slog through on any given month. Progressive house shares a lot with its rock & roll namesake, not least an otiose unwillingness to curtail any excess committed in the name of artistic purity. Tomiie has a few of those double-disc endurance trials under his belt too, but by choosing to release the albums separately he actually achieves something more satisfying. There’s a lot of good music here, and each disc deserves to be considered on its own merits.

ES actually begins with something of a tribute to the golden age of house, with dark, noodly tracks like Kevin Freeman’s “Time for the Revolution” that recall the likes of Mr. Fingers. Pastaboys “Tribute” sounds like it could actually be a slice of vintage American acid, complete with whispering samples and echoey 303 riffs. Avenue D’s “You Love This Ass” continues the acid feel—I swear, Satoshi could have dropped these tracks at any New York club 15 years ago and you wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference. Bush II Bush’s “Piano Track” even brings back that hoariest of rave clich&#233s—the infinitely repeating piano sample!

But he ramps up into a more modern feel with the inclusion of the Peace Division’s “Peaces of Gold”, a track that retains something of a retro feel despite the producers’ modern sound (the robot voice spelling out “H-O-U-S-E is a wonderful touch). Chab’s “You and Me” finally brings us up to date with a fully progressive track—the familiar orchestral breakdown that begins the song undoubtedly slays in the club. I like Maskio’s “Wait (I Know What You Need)” because it’s got this little synthesizer riff that recalls Donna Summer’s classic “I Feel Love” without being shamefully derivative—it’s just a little element but it adds a lot of life to the stomping prog.

From prog, Tomiie drops down into something unexpected—a slice of modern funky house in the form of Uppfade’s “Friday Loops”. It’s even got a disco bassline, of a sort. Coburn’s “We Interrupt This Program” builds off the kind of riff that could have wondered in off a Cheap Trick album, and the pop instinct makes for a welcome addition to the album’s diverse sound. Finally, Slok’s “Lonely Child” brings the whole thing to a close with an authentic electro-influenced vocal track—the presence of a full human voice after an album of mostly artificial sounds grants the finale a satisfying lush note, like the first rays of the morning sun.

ES-B begins with an entirely different vibe than its predecessor. This is definitely a techno mix, with a slightly slower tempo and a more sensual, slinky feel. Star You Star Me’s “Sweet Things” kicks things off in sultry fashion, with a shoegazing female vocal and a pseudo-M83 vibe. That segues into Metro Area’s “Proton Candy”, which comes up just shy of very weird, with oddly-processed synth lines and wet, echoey handclaps. Tomiie’s own “Glow” is a definite highlight, with a minimal, tech-house vibe that brings to mind an unholy hybrid of Naked Music and Kompakt.

The middle portion of the disc eschews the sly for a more satisfying funk, with M1 Presents’ “Man: Machine” introducing an incredibly sexy bassline that flows into the ascetically sexual “Concept” by Dan Berkson Presents Syntho. John Tejada brings the techno funk with “Chorgs”, a track that somehow manages to bridge the significant gap between modern microhouse and progressive house, with sweeping synthesizer lines and an ominous, spacey groove.

Chab featuring JD Davis’ “Closer to Me” continues the techno feel but introduces a looped female vocal element more reminiscent of Orbital’s “Halcyon”, in addition to a more pedestrian male performance. Vulva String Quartet’s “Death Cab for Bootsy” gets the award for coolest track titled, but—disappointingly—the track itself doesn’t seem to really have anything to do with either Death Cab for Cutie or Bootsy Collins. The mix ends on a high note, with Elmar Schubert’s stomping “Make Me High”—a strong retro feel and a classic house vocal element—segueing into Spirit Catcher’s “Code Breaker”. This brings the mood back to the retro mid-‘80s feel that began ES, while the coruscating synthesizer stabs that conclude the track bring to mind something vaguely, albeit subtly, transcendent.

Satoshi Tomiie has pulled off a nice trick, producing two discs that hold up equally well on their own but gain a degree of additional significance when considered together. He’s a fine DJ but he also has a canny ear for generic synthesis which sets him apart from many of his peers as well as a satisfying historical perspective. He builds sets with an ear towards (musical) progression and storytelling, and the results are rarely less than interesting.

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