If pressed to name a band from the brief but terribly fun Madchester scene, odds are most would mention a band that was either not from Manchester (Blur) or was from Manchester but was established well before said period (New Order). What a pity: Manchester's music scene was virtually unparalleled, thanks to a dearth of decent jobs and a surplus of cheap drugs. The Stone Roses unleashed one of the best records of all time. Happy Mondays made one of the best singles of all time ("Step On"). Both bands may have gone down in a haze of smoke and pills a few years later, but they left behind undisputed classics. The also-rans of the era weren't exactly slouches, either: Primal Scream, Inspiral Carpets, James, the La's. Not a bad on in the bunch, though apologies are perhaps in order for Northside.
Curiously, no one talks about 808 State, one of the most important bands of the scene. Where everyone else was slinging their guitars down to their knees and staring at their shoes, 808 were hammering their keyboards and drum machines (they knew how to play instruments, but couldn't be bothered) in an attempt to tear the roof off tha sucka. Sharp and disjointed sometimes, blissful and gorgeous others, 808 were a band for both clubs and headphones. But, sadly, not radio, (remember, it's the early '90s, Moby hadn't yet made the world safe for electronic music) which may explain their diminished role in the history books.
808 State can also has the unique distinction of staying together, something to which no other Madchester band can lay claim (except the Charlatans UK, who will survive nuclear holocaust along with cockroaches and U2). After a lengthy layoff -- their last proper album was 1997's Don Solaris -- 808 are back with Outpost Transmission, an album that finds them both fixing what ain't broke and going for broke at the same time. The familiar lies in the oh-so timely guest vocalists (they should get royalty checks for the concept), while other moments imply that the boys have been listening to either hardcore jazz or Aphex Twin. It's hard to tell.
One instant strike against Outpost Transmission is its sound, and the band has only itself to blame. Their 1991 album Ex:El, besides being one of the best electronic albums ever made, is easily the best sounding electronic album ever made, a pitch perfect balance of bottom heavy woofer beats and high-end percussion and synthesizer squeals. Outpost Transmission (and, frankly, every 808 album since Ex:El) sounds like Beethoven did the mixdown, with the bass lines dulled and the high end almost completely wiped out. Tragic. Even Daft Punk could make the fattest dance records sound equally sharp.
The one noticeable change on Outpost Transmission is its time signatures. There would usually be a song, two tops, that strayed from the standard 4/4 beat. Outpost Transmission is filled with oddball times and measures, with some songs doing drum 'n' bass riffs in waltz time and others simply changing speed altogether halfway through. What have these guys been listening to lately? It surely doesn't sound like they're surveying the landscape, nor should they. If the results aren't as consistent as their previous work, they still speak volumes about the confidence and vision the band possesses.
Leadoff track "606" features an odd three-part female vocal from Simian (think Trio Bulgarka on Kate Bush's "Rocket's Tail") that jumps around the electro-beat drum track in a seemingly different time. It's a compelling blend of early breakdance beats, steel drums, and world beat-style singing, and sets the table rather well for what's to come. Which is, well, everything.
"Chopsumwong" (So . . . many . . . jokes . . . must . . . resist . . .) uses the aforementioned drum 'n' waltz track, recalling Future Sound of London's Lifeforms work, which makes sense, since FSOL's classic "Papua New Guinea" was no doubt a nod to 808. The keyboards shift pitch manically while the drum tracks chug along with seemingly no regard for each other. Perhaps now it's 808's turn to want to be Tangerine Dream.
Or perhaps they're still channeling Yellow Magic Orchestra, which seems to be the impetus behind "Lungfoo". It's filled with Kraftwerk-esque beats and a strain of experimental jazz. Likewise "Quincy's Lunch", which throws nonsense speaking to a beat that's showtune one minute, slamming drum 'n' bass the next.
Their choices for contributors are, again, flawless, with the blessed Guy Garvey from Elbow guesting on "Lemonsoul". They certainly picked the right song for him to sing, with a haunting backing track that recalls Peter Gabriel's darker work. One missed opportunity, however, is the superb, slinky spy theme-tinged "Bent", on which the band should have held Beth Gibbons at gunpoint for a vocal.
It would be cliché and misleading to say that Outpost Transmission is a world beat record. A more accurate description is that it draws influences from literally around the world. Japanese melodies, German beats, American horns, all filtered with a UK sensibility. It's frankly difficult to compare Outpost to their earlier work simply because there is very little common ground. Sure, they're more confident and more fearless, but does that make them better? A moot question, really. True fans of 808 State have always admired them more for their courage and open-mindedness than their ability to pack a dance floor anyway. Outpost Transmission may not be a masterpiece, but it's damn good. More importantly, it's encouraging to see an electronic band actually age gracefully, and on its own terms.