It seems hard to believe now, but there was a time when it was assumed the future of music would be wholly electronic. Programmed beats, glitch-y synths and all manner of electronically created sounds were hailed as the music of the coming century and beyond. Groups like the Chemical Brothers, the Prodigy, Moby and others saw their music slowly moving from the club scenes within which they had been birthed and, almost improbably, into the mainstream.
Rather ironically, the future of music has proven instead to be the past. But in the mid-1990s as the techno/electronic music scene began gaining a foothold within the mainstream, these then cutting-edge sounds and artists seemed harbingers of a new era of popular music, one in which computers were the core.
One of the more progressive electronic musicians then and now, Richard D. James, better known as Aphex Twin, seemed to see the limitless potential of and for electronic music, paying little mind to what would ultimately turn out to be yet another in a long line of musical fads. Drawing equally from early ‘90s electronic music, primitive synth experiments and classical minimalism, James set about creating a sound and aesthetic immediately identifiable and utterly unique in its singularity.
As Aphex Twin, his Selected Ambient works proved to be something of a revelation in how electronic music was perceived and consumed. No longer merely confined to the clubs or a four-on-the-floor beat, this new form took the ideas of early pioneers like Brian Eno and fused them with a modernist take. From this was birthed what was then referred to as IDM, or intelligent dance music. It proved a fitting sobriquet for these more self-serious musicians looking to push the form in new and different directions, creating something well beyond the established norms.
Yet as outré and futuristic as the music may have seemed at the time, informed listeners could pick up on the influences and often pinpoint the origin of an idea, rhythm or sound. The main purveyors of IDM functioned more like modernist or avant garde classical composers in the way they approached their compositions. Rather than simply layering a beat designed to keep bodies moving, rhythms were twisted and bent, tempos slowed, repetition simultaneously embraced and fully jettisoned. Intelligent indeed, IDM helped return a focus to composition over merely rhythm and repetition. In an alternate reality, this could well have become the future of music.
Partnering with like-minded electronic innovator Mike Paradinas (better known as µ-Ziq), Mike & Rich’s classic Expert Knob Twiddlers served as a demarcation point between the old and the new, opening a world of possibilities well beyond that afforded by house music. Here the music could go in any number of unique directions. From straight-ahead techno to sonic experiments and abstract ambience, Mike & Rich refused to remain boxed in by the aural constraints of their chosen genre.
Opening track “Mr. Frosty” is a breezy, bouncing bit of retro-futurist funk that plays like a ‘90s Stevie Wonder through a propulsive, kick drum-led bit of electronic drumming. It’s a fine introductory statement that, in its deceptive complexity, let listeners know this was music designed as much for the dancefloor as solitary headphone listening. It also functioned as something of a red herring in terms of what was to come. “Reg,” with its fractured guitar riff and club-footed rhythm, is all herky-jerky nightmare that devolves into Mike Patton-esque vocal nonsense and unsettlingly percussive marimba.
This stylistic disparity from one track to the next helps in Expert Knob Twiddlers’ overall appeal, refusing to adhere to any one sound or style in particular, covering a broad range of sounds and styles and providing a little something for nearly everyone. “Vodka” is all glitch-y abstraction while “Winner Takes All” is a robotic approximation of swing; “Portamento Gosh” plays with space age pop and proto electronic music a la Perrey-Kingsley’s The In Sound From Way Out! while “Bu Bu Bu Ba” lends the faintest hint of a melodic structure to ambient techno.
Throughout, elements of each individual performer can be heard. From James’ thundering, glitch-y abstraction and avant garde, absurdist pretense to Paradinas’ distorted funk, each complements the other in a manner most impressive. The one and only collaboration issued under the Mike & Rich moniker, Expert Knob Twiddlers represents not only some of the best electronic music the Rephlex label had to offer, but the whole of Britain at a time when it seemed techno was to become the sound of the future.
While it ultimately proved little more than a passing fad, 20 years on this reissue of Expert Knob Twiddlers still sounds as vital and forward-thinking as it did at the time of its release. Both artists would go on to do bigger and better projects, but this album represents the halcyon days of mid-‘90s techno when it seemed the future was an endless stream of possibilities yet to be discovered. The truth, unfortunately, proved to be much less impressive. Retroactively listening to Expert Knob Twiddlers we contemporary listeners can still hold out some hope for a musical revolution that will see the future of pop music moving into fascinating new directions. Until then, the faithful will have to continue living in the past.