There’s a downside to being a trailblazer, an originator, a pioneer. The difficult paradox is that eventually the original material becomes dated and outmoded in light of the creations it inspires. That’s more true in electronic music than in many fields, simply because of the rate at which technology excels.
The British music publication Mojo recently ran a “special edition” on electro-pop. In it, Kraftwerk’s groundbreaking 1978 album The Man Machine was lauded for “…influencing a generation of musicians”, yet later in the same article was described as having “…achieved a certain antique charm”. Kraftwerk made a couple attempts to “catch up” with the fruits of their innovation. When those failed, the group waited patiently for a decade while its legend ripened, then made a triumphant “comeback” playing its golden oldies.
Not everyone has the good fortune to be as charming as Kraftwerk. And not every innovator’s influences become so widespread and unmistakable. For instance, you won’t read about any hip young retro-brats paying homage to Joey Beltram.
Though he was born and raised in Queens, New York, Beltram is generally known as the principal creator of the “hardcore techno” sound, a take-no-prisoners mash-up of styles from Chicago, Detroit; and Brussels, Belgium. Hardcore doesn’t waste much time or bpm’s with breakbeats, melody, or hooks. Instead, it blends the bass-heavy groove of Chicago house with the minimal, chattering Detroit techno and incessant electro pulse of early Belgian rave. And Trax Classix brims with 16 prime examples from its early days.
Trax Classix compiles two of Beltram’s original Trax releases in their entirety: Re-Releases 1989-1991, and Joey Beltram Presents Dance Generator, from 1993. Both were recorded when Beltram was barely out of his teens, and you can hear the adolescent angst in the wordless onslaught of drum machines.
This is a great chance to “hear how it all began”. “Dance Generator” starts things off with a classic Chicago-style bassline, and then the punishing Roland 909 kick drum and hi-hat get going. Add some paranoid organ stuttering, and repeat for five minutes… or until submission. Other tracks offer variations on the theme. “Mucho Acid”, “Flash Cube”, and “Fuzz” feature Roland 303 basslines that pan across the speakers while passing through a variety of filters. Among these, “Mucho Acid” is the clear standout; it’s been imitated so many times that the tactic has become a cliché.
Beltram’s genius is that he can establish such an oppressive, forceful atmosphere with so few ingredients. On “Life Force” and “Optics” it’s a minor-key sequencer line and the 909 pounding away. Always, those hissing hi-hats sound so mean they could slice through steel, while the bursts of snare threaten to swallow you alive. “Voyageur” and “Work Dat” up the ante by replacing the sequencers with dissonant squelches and industrial blasts.
Beltram’s work for Trax ended up being a wayside en route to the world’s signature hardcore label, Tresor. Beltram is still putting out new music and trying out new genres, but Trax Classix helps show how he made his name. It’s really not suited for in-home listening; although none of the tracks are overly long, they get repetitive unless they’re heard on a crowded floor while you’re dancing your ass off. Sure, more sophisticated stuff has come along, and some of the stylistic elements cement this music in time, but you’re still talking more “primal energy” than “antique charm”.