While Leftism is rightly remembered as a seminal work of ’90s house music from an English perspective, perhaps its most defining characteristic is its open, eclectic, fusion-like approach to the genre. Paul Daley and Neil Barnes were never purists, at least not in the dogmatic sense of the word. Their 1995 full-length debut as Leftfield found them tapping into diverse musical veins and unexpected collaborations, from John Lydon (formerly Johnny Rotten) to Curve’s Toni Halliday. They were as comfortable adhering devotedly to classic forms of house as they were dabbling in dub, reggae, pop, and even slower, moodier genres like ambient and trip-hop.
Twenty-two years later, the album has been reissued as Leftism 22, which includes a slew of remixes by Leftfield’s successors in the world of dance. Like much electronic music from the ’90s, some of the record’s production stylings inevitably sound dated. The musical breaks in “Original” especially come across as something out of a Bill Nye the Science Guy episode. Nonetheless, that song, along with the album as a whole, has lost little of its fundamental pleasures over the intervening decades.
Leftfield are masters of pacing, and Leftism benefits from a spacious, unhurried approach that lends it authenticity. “Release the Pressure”, which had first been released as a single back in 1992, begins with eerie and dramatic washes of synth that spend a whole two minutes simply setting the mood. Even when the song takes off, propelled by Earl Sixteen’s reggae flourishes, it remains as laidback and relaxed as its title might suggest; this is not the sound of compulsive partying but of genuine, carefree revelry.
Before transitioning into more straightforward (or simply more expected) techno in its second half, “Song of Life” first employs a stomping, rock-oriented beat that calls to mind Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks”, which itself has provided ample crossover material for dance and pop artists over the years (see: Björk, Beyoncé). The oft-overlooked “Melt”, meanwhile, floats along in soft, amniotic bliss. It is just as effective as any of the dance tracks here, varying the style while altering little of the album’s euphoric, almost reverent mood.
The album’s midsection, while well-crafted, does not feature as memorable of material as its bookends and comes across as more generic overall. Leftism ultimately reaches its climax with the hysterical, Lydon-featuring “Open Up”, in what amounts to the album’s most intense and combustible moment. “21st Century Poem” concludes things on a solemn note with a grave, movie trailer-worthy recital by British author Lemn Sissay.
The remixes included on Leftism 22 are notable for their faithfulness to their source material. Many are easily recognizable from the get-go, merely bringing out the same intrinsic characteristics through alternate, more contemporary routes. Quiet Village’s remix of “Melt”, for instance, mostly just expands the original to be longer and even more spacious. While this does beg the question as to why these remixes are necessary in the first place, most are at least enjoyable. Skream’s “Open Up” remix is classic slow-build techno, even if it lacks the uncontainable vitality of the album version. Adesse Versions turns “Original” into a shuffling, hi-hat-driven IDM experiment, updating the song in a manner that proves edifying and perhaps even providing a new entry point for the uninitiated. Most intriguing of all, though, is Zomby’s gloomy take on “21st Century Poem”, perhaps the most challenging track to remix in the first place. Zomby alters Sissay’s already deep voice to be even more shadowy and menacing, adding a doomy and sparse beat to the arrangement that creeps forward like a ghost rattling its chain.
Leftfield released their follow-up to Leftism four years later in 1999 and subsequently broke up in 2001. While Barnes resurrected the group in 2010 without Daley, their place as a guiding force in dance music remains relatively short-lived. Even so, revisiting their debut through Leftism 22 finds the material continuing to sound fresh and relevant many years later. It is a document in the history of progressive house, sure, but also a loose, pleasurable excursion as comfortable with the dance floor as it is with sweeping, cinematic beauty.