As writer Rory Gibb once asked himself, "What on earth is this music?"
A feisty sentence in this compilation's press release describes Mike Paradinas's Planet Mu record label as "an established engine of creativity and enquiry, with one foot in the pop world, and a sense of fun that never lets its experimentation disappear into exclusivity and snobbery." Assuming that Paradinas, aka µ-Ziq, and the rest of his roster have an interest in keeping one foot in the "pop word", the µ20 anniversary collection sounds like Planet Mu went and unlaced the shoe on that foot. The shoe remains, giving us the impression of a pop presence, but the foot quietly excused itself to some other place. Mike Paradinas and his ilk are the kind of electronic musicians that try to peer around the corner of cutting trends. If a particular electronica subgenre was enjoying noticeable success, Planet Mu didn't take the moment for granted. Paradinas had his feelers extended to pick up on the movements that interested him rather than the market place. He could also tell when a style was about to go stale. It is rumored that there are casino gamblers armed with a sixth sense that tells them when the deck at a blackjack table is about to go cold. Paradinas's career as a label boss features small moments like these, where he is able to read the writing on the wall concerning the future of drum and bass.
A rundown of the styles that Planet Mu has trafficked in is a nifty little exercise in subgenre identification: IDM, breakcore, dubstep, grime, footwork -- you know, stuff you can dance to if you are a robot prone to experiencing glitches in your circuitry. Rory Gibb, writer for The Quietus, contributes a lengthy Planet Mu biography to the µ20 cause (in PDF format, it weighs in at 42 pages). In his detailed history of the label, he chases these terms around the room even more: pseudo-breakbeat, post-IDM, "mutant junglism", "pummeling sub-bass", and "slow-percolating b-boy beat flicker-illuminated by neon streetlights." If there is a central theme to be had from Gibb's essay, it's that Paradinas followed his gut more than anything else. If he was moved by a particular style of music, he followed it. If he felt that Planet Mu was no longer going to benefit from being under the Virgin Records umbrella, then he cut the ties. "I try to figure out the justifications for it afterwards," he tells Gibb via Skype of his emotionally-driven decision making skills. It seems to have served him well, balance sheets be damned, because the music that Planet Mu has and continues to crank out sounds like little else in the world of electronica. And yet the initial pressing of µ20, two discs containing a total of 32 tracks, explores only the current decade (I guess the 20 in the title is just to brag about the labels longevity). A third disc is available in the deluxe edition, and that's where you will find tracks that will span the Planet Mu's first ten years. All together it's 50 tracks worth, giving you 3 hours and 46 minutes of the weirdest dance music to ever have one foot in the pop world.
Some of Planet Mu's most prized players are represented on µ20 including Venetian Snares, Boxcutter, Jega, Shitmat, Hellfish, Mike Paradinas's alias µ-Ziq, and too many more to list in a mere overview. Naturally, meaning that you love one song doesn't mean that you'll love them all... unless your last name is Paradinas. The sounds of breakcore and grime are already hard for the passive music listener to swallow, so diving into a thick collection meant to parse the various bits and pieces of IDM's multiple offshoots is only going to sharpen the opinions of certain electronica connoisseurs.
Mike Paradinas's faith in the future of electronic music was galvanized by his respect for and eventual friendship with Richard D. James. So it's not a huge shock that these colletible tracks are taking the Aphex Twin sound above, beyond, behind, and below its "origins". Swindle's "Airmiles (Terror Danjah Carbon Footprint Remix)", Konx-Om-Pax's "Astro Belter", and Remano Eszildn's "Contax" are particular reminders of how electronic musicians have the luxury to treat melodies as elastic playthings and how hearing such liberties being taken is a privelege. For Venetian Snares, the rhythm track is the plaything on the furiously jungle "Meeting A Buddha". If it's something mellower you crave, you can skip to Traxman's slow jam "Nothing Stays Tha Same" or any number of more ambient tracks like "Digi Dub" by Ital, "Phantom Prophet" by Mr. Mitch, or µ-Ziq's blissed-out remix of the John Wizards track "Lushoto". Or if you just want something snappy with a catchy refrain, Heterotic's "Cute" maintains the illusion of the shoe in the pop garden. With fifty tracks, there are plenty of ones that fall in-between genres, or ones that exist in their own little cut-up universe, like Leafcutter John's bizarre, asymmetrical "Kickcut".
As varied as this all may sound on paper, just keep in mind that Planet Mu's most listenable artists are already pretty far into left-field from the start. So when µ20 hops from one stone to another, it feels like you're following a path of some sort. But who needs a linear path when almost every track of a 50-song collection spanning more than three-and-a-half hours has set up a summer cabin on the very cutting edge of electronic music? In the first paragraph of his essay, Rory Gibb repeats a rhetorical question he asked himself back when he first encountered the music of Planet Mu: "What on earth is this music?" After spending hours listening to it over and over again, I still can't provide a clear answer. But I'm no worse of for not having one ready. I'm just comforted by two facts: one, I just encountered a whole mess of sounds I had never heard before and two, there's much more from where this all came.