B12: Last Days of Silence

[27 July 2008]

By David Abravanel

IDM -– what an awful term. “Intelligent Dance Music” conjures up images of holier-than-thou circuit freaks spitting on the mindless ‘ardkore ravers, content instead to fawn over the church of the patch. If one is to get technical, what the press calls “IDM” started out as a listserve, before being adopted in the early ‘90s as a buzzword for this curious electronic music coming mostly from Warp records. In its seminal Artificial Intelligence series of albums, compilations, and videos, Warp presented a new aesthetic for electronic music. This was the gnarled branch grown from the Detroit techno family tree.

Of the acts to appear on the Artificial Intelligence series, none were more directly indebted to the Detroit style than B12 and F.U.S.E. The latter was an alias of one Richie Hawtin, aka Plastikman, but that’s another story. It was B12’s Electro-Soma, a collection mostly of singles released by the duo of Mike Golding and Steve Rutter, under various guises, that matters most here. Soma was rightfully hailed as a classic, while its 1996 follow-up, Time Tourists, continued further down B12’s forays into ambient techno with science fiction themes. Following a little-noticed EP, B12 went away for a while, returning now, ten years later, with Last Days of Silence.

How’s this for an audacious start: the first track on Silence is not just a remix, but a remix of “Hall of Mirrors”, off Soma. After a 10-year absence, B12 want to inaugurate their return with a reminder of their classic material, but, unfortunately, the remix is somewhat of a misfire. Gutting the crisp 909 hits from the original, and replacing pads with unremarkable strings, “Hall of Mirrors (Digitonal’s Strings in Space Mix)” falls flat. B12 run into further trouble when they elect to run certain pattern into the ground: witness the menacing pad bubbles that repeat ad nauseam on “Don’t Be Afraid”, losing their effect about halfway through the track. As the follow-up to “Afraid”, “Static Glitch”, proves, however, Rutter and Golding are also quite capable of selecting a better loop to ride into acid-techno oblivion.

Silence sees B12 falling for their old tendencies for wankery, but, thankfully, it more often than not features techno explorations that successfully incorporate elements of ambience, for an engaging work of aural science fiction. “Beyond Control” portrays a dark, cavernous space temple, presumably the one housing the muse responsible for the best moments of eerie B12 isolation. “One” and its cousin “More Than One” are highlights of this menacing sound, exploring the mutative possibilities of its synth string pattern and jutting drums. On the more playful front, “Slope” tosses its plinky synth stabs down a rubbery hallway, the magic lying in Rutter and Golding’s masterful design and manipulation of such sounds. “Slope” also features a more driving, hardcore-derived sound, bringing something new to the B12 compositional palette. These ideas are expanded upon more on the excellent bonus disc of soundboard recordings attached to Silence.

The studio album undoubtedly has its moments, but it’s for the incredible second disc to convince the listener why it is so necessary and vital for B12 to begin releasing again. From 2006 and 2007, these on-the-spot recordings find the duo shed all pretensions of ambient meandering and instead focus on a cerebral hardcore that would make Speedy J blush. This is the sound of two old friends rediscovering old equipment, a thrilling resurrection of the creative symbiosis that made the early singles so vital.

Bucking the common criticism of the British response to Detroit –- that it loses the funk -– with “Twisted Muva”, a storming brew of dueling bass squeals, featuring an entirely-appropriate sample commanding “work it, mothafucka!”. “Zoo Zoo”, meanwhile, takes the curiosity inherent in B12’s studio tracks, and avoids devolving into aimlessness by focusing instead on adding and subtracting layers of stuttering, stop-start percussion and synths. Divorced of the pitfalls of pretension and over-composing that mar some of the studio recordings on disc one, disc two of Silence suggests that Rutter and Golding would do well to apply this live creative process more often.

It’d be nice to see B12 score some new fans, but Last Days of Silence isn’t the album that is going to do that. Rather, this release is a double-disc document of a reunited Rutter and Golding experiencing growing pains, as they work to incorporate a more pulsing, hardcore sound into their second-wave Detroit ambient template. This isn’t to suggest that Silence particularly suffers from this stylistic diversity, but rather that B12 have a lot of creative life left in them, and an exciting future ahead.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/b12-last-days-of-silence/